A jail used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain migrants is nearly empty in the wake of complaints filed against the facility. Among the complaints is a whistleblower allegation from a nurse claiming some female detainees at Irwin County Detention Center were forced to undergo hysterectomies. The jail has also been criticized for failing to protect immigrants and jail staff from COVID-19. Now, Irwin County officials worry the facility, which also houses federal and county inmates and is the area's largest private employer, may eventually be shut down, taking much-needed jobs with it.

RELATED: All ICE detainees moved out of South Georgia jail


Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. A South Georgia jail used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detained immigrants is now almost empty in the wake of standing complaints against the facility. Last year, a nurse came forward with a complaint that documented abuses against female detainees, saying some were even forced to undergo hysterectomies at Irwin County Detention Center. The jail has also come under scrutiny from state health officials for failing to protect immigrants and staff from COVID-19.

Whistleblower and nurse Dawn Wooten [00:00:33] I began to ask questions about why were the detainees not being tested — symptomatic or asymptomatic.

Steve Fennessy: The United States Department of Homeland Security recently announced it would end its ICE contract with the private jail. But more details about its history of unsanitary conditions and alleged human rights abuses continue to emerge. For more, I'm joined by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jeremy Redmon. Jeremy, let's start with a short history of the Irwin County Detention Center, which is in rural South Georgia. It was built in the 1990s by the county for the same reason that a lot of these places are built across rural America: as a means to employ its citizens. And along the way, the Irwin County facility got into the immigrant detainee business. Can you help us understand that a bit better?

Jeremy Redmon: This facility is built with county bonds and it's changed hands several times since then, and they more than doubled it from 500 beds to around twelve hundred beds. But it did not hold enough detainees and the jail ended up not paying its taxes and accumulated about $1.6 million in back taxes owed to the county and the city. So at that point, around 2013, a company called CGL comes in, buys it at a bankruptcy auction, joins into a partnership with a company called LaSalle Corrections of Louisiana. LaSalle, while it owns the jail, it leases it to the county. And the county receives money from LaSalle annually based on how many detainees are held there. So to break it down for you, the county's got about a $5 million annual budget. This is a small county with about 10,000 people, and it collected around $400,000 based on the operation of this jail. And at one point, I understand it was holding hundreds of ICE detainees. And so the jail also has the $10 million payroll, employs about 200 people and is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the local economy. So now that ICE has moved its detainees out — it happened just recently — the county is scrambling to fill a major hole in its budget.

Steve Fennessy: So as the population of the place grew and as its capacity expanded, what were some of the concerns about the conditions there?

Jeremy Redmon: Back just a year ago, in September of last year, a group of civil rights organizations, immigrant rights advocates, joined together and filed a complaint with the U.S. government, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. Much of it is based on information from a whistleblower who worked inside the jail, a nurse named Dawn Wooten. There were a variety of complaints, but these are the two main ones. One is that the detention center was not doing enough to protect the staff and detainees from COVID-19. And the second one is that female detainees were receiving improper medical care without them giving informed consent, including hysterectomies. The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation. So did Congress and so did U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

[News tape] 11Alive: As 11 Alive has reported, a class action lawsuit against the facility now includes sworn testimony from at least 40 women.

Steve Fennessy: Explain to me more about the hysterectomies. What was the explanation by the authorities for that?

Jeremy Redmon: ICE has said that maybe as many as two happened, but the people who filed this complaint looked into it more to gather records through the federal Freedom of Information Act, finding that there are actually more hysterectomies that were performed on these women as well as other invasive procedures. So we don't have the results of the investigation from ICE at this point, nor has the Office of the Inspector General for DHS. And again, we're a year later after the whistleblower complaint.

Steve Fennessy: So were these procedures conducted at the facility?

Jeremy Redmon: Presumably no. And they were done by an outside doctor. These detainees were brought elsewhere.

Steve Fennessy: It was done allegedly without the consent of the detained women, correct?

Jeremy Redmon: Well, here's the issue, is that many of the women, English is not their native language, is not their first language, right? These are immigrants that are coming from foreign countries. So the allegation was is that they were not properly informed about why they were receiving these medical procedures.

[News tape] NBC: And new this month, we learn that ICE already deported six former patients who complained about the doctor and at least seven others who made allegations against him as well have been told that they, too, could be removed from the country soon.

Steve Fennessy: And the complaint that was filed by the whistleblower also included allegations of unsanitary conditions, especially in the middle of a pandemic. What did those conditions look like? What were they outlining?

Jeremy Redmon: It was not providing personal protective equipment, masks, not providing for social distancing. And visiting the detention center last week, I learned that two of the employees, including a top health official there, have died from COVID-19 over the last — you know, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Steve Fennessy: And what about detainees themselves?

Jeremy Redmon: For Irwin, as of Sept. 8, it was 146 cases of confirmed COVID-19.

Steve Fennessy: Jeremy, what more can you tell us about the doctor who was performing these hysterectomies and what his connection is to Irwin.

Jeremy Redmon: The doctor's name is Dr. Mahendra Amin. And there were panel of gynecologists or doctors that looked into the procedures he had performed. And they produced a report after these allegations surfaced saying that women from the detention center, these were detainees there that were referred to gynecologists for problems that were really unrelated to their reproductive health and were pressured to undergo these unnecessary surgeries. Amin, according to this report, did the procedures without informing the patients of risks, the benefits or the alternatives before operating. And some of the women said they did not consent to the procedures, which in some cases left them unable to bear children. Some of the women refused surgery, but were later referred to psychiatric treatment, according to the documents they got.

Steve Fennessy: Through his attorney, Scott Grubman, Dr. Amin strenuously denies the allegations. And according to a defamation lawsuit Amin filed last week against MSNBC, the doctor says he performed only two hysterectomies on patients from the Irwin County Detention Center. The lawsuit says both were "medically necessary, and in both instances, the patients were informed and consented to the procedures,” unquote, regarding the nine-member panel that examined Amin's practice at the detention center, Amin's attorney also says the investigators failed to review all relevant medical records before making their determination. So Dawn Wooten is the whistleblower who initially alerted the public to the concerns there. Has she faced any fallout from speaking out?

Jeremy Redmon: We understand from her representatives, this is that the Government Accountability Project, they're alleging that when she first raised her concerns internally, that her supervisors, the management at their LaSalle, chose to retaliate against her instead of addressing the abuses.

[News tape] FOX5: Wooten says she was demoted from full time to as needed when she questioned the lack of COVID testing and equipment.

Dawn Wooten: "I became a whistleblower. Now I'm a target. But I'll take a target any day to do what's right and just, than sit and be a part of what's inhumane."

[News tape] FOX5: We reached out to the government to get their response. ICE does not comment on matters presented to the office of the Inspector General. That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations made without any fact-checkable specifics should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.

Jeremy Redmon: And she's still waiting for the results of the investigation as well, just like the officials down in Irwin County. We've asked LaSalle for a response from this accusation that there was some retaliation. We haven't heard back from them just yet.

Steve Fennessy: When we come back, how Irwin County's troubled detention center could be a cautionary tale for other communities looking to stake their economic futures on private jails.


You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Joining me is Jeremy Redmon, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Let's step back and talk a little bit about the facility itself and the population of detained immigrants, what actually brings most of them there? How do they end up there?

Jeremy Redmon: It could be that you are an immigrant who has come here legally on a visa, that you've overstayed your visa and you've been apprehended and you are in the process of going through deportation proceedings. It could be that you were arrested at the border, crossing the border illegally without proper documentation and you were brought to this facility. And what happens is this: Some of these people are still going through deportation proceedings. In other words, they're fighting their cases. They're allowed to appear in court. Some of them do it by video conferencing from the facility where a judge is sitting in another location and you're patched in by video. Others are already been ordered deported, and it's just really the logistics. They're awaiting a time to get a van to transport you to the airport at Columbus or in Atlanta to fly you back to your native country and to watch you go back through your port of entry.

Steve Fennessy: And how long might someone be there?

Jeremy Redmon: I understand typically weeks to months.  The government is forbidden from holding people for an extended period of time, an inordinate period of time, under a case called Zadvydas.

Steve Fennessy: So when we're talking about the population of Irwin County Detention Center, there were also detainees from the Marshal's Office. So is there a mix, then, of people who are there just because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time versus people who may be accused of — of crimes?

Jeremy Redmon: It's all the above. You've got U.S. Marshal Service attorneys. These are people convicted or — you know, of federal offenses. You also have local offenders who are arrested in Irwin County for some local offense. And then you have the immigration detainees who are there on an immigration offense. And in fact, the ICE detainees, for example, were segregated by uniform, wearing different color uniforms based on their offense level. But they're housed in different wings of this detention center that has about 1,200 beds. It’s just outside of downtown Ocilla, which is a very small rural area that the detention center itself is kind of a, I believe it's a one-level building surrounded by a tall fence and ringed with barbed wire. And it's kind of a big, grassy, patchy area just outside of town.

Steve Fennessy: When you went down there last week, what brought you there?

Jeremy Redmon: I was curious about the impact on that community. You know, we covered the whistleblower complaint when it came out a year ago and had reported with my colleagues at the paper, Alan Judd included, particularly in what you've been asking about, about the female detainees and also just the way the pandemic was and how they were responding to it, the jail. But I was curious about the economic impact, too, and how this county is going to deal with the fallout from this. They've been lobbying. These are county officials down there lobbying U.S. senators in Georgia to try to reverse this decision from DHS and preserve this contract with ICE so that ICE will continue sending detainees there. Meanwhile, they've been reaching out to other law enforcement agencies to see if they can find sources of other detainees to be sent to the jail. And if this thing closes down, again, there’s some fear they've got to find a new place to hold their local offenders, because this is the location where local people who are arrested on local offenses go. At the same time, it's going to have an impact on people who contract with the jail. I visited a tire and car maintenance place that services the transport vans. And they're doing about $60,000 worth of work on these vehicles with tires and oil changes over the course of the year. That's one position for this one company. But on top of that, you have vendors selling food to the jail, utilities. This is something that they're worried about with a domino effect. What would happen to their third-largest supplier, which they identify as Irwin County Hospital, which I'm told, you know, has been treating detainees as well as staff there. What happens to the hospital if it loses that revenue? Think about it. This is a jail that just employs not just people from Ocilla and Irwin County, but surrounding counties as well, including Ben Hill. I interviewed staff members who are working or who live in Fitzgerald and Ben Hill, but commute into Irwin. So it's going to have a regional impact as well.

Steve Fennessy: Have there been layoffs already?

Jeremy Redmon: Not that I'm aware of, but what actions are they going to take? What happens when, you know there's no more detainees coming in the next few weeks?

Steve Fennessy: So how hard is it, Jeremy, when we talk about privately run prisons, how much more difficult is it for you to find stuff out?

Jeremy Redmon: Really difficult. It really comes from what we can hear from ICE, which doesn't provide a lot of information, or the private company that runs them if they choose to speak to us and share information. But a lot of it we get from activists or advocates for the detainees, many of whom go visit them in the detention center. I mean, these are people who are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from their native country and are missing their family. And so to the extent that the activists can get in these detention centers for visiting hours, we learn a lot from them, as well as humanitarian aid groups like El Refugio down in Lumpkin. It's difficult, but building sources over time, we have a lot of people who want to share with us what they've learned about what's going on in these facilities. Often we learned of deaths in the detention centers, for example, from these activists first. And you can't just walk into one of these detention centers. You need to get permission from ICE. And there are all sorts of ground rules for visiting, photography, where you can go, where you can't go, who you can talk to. It takes extended periods of time to set these types of visits up for journalists.

Steve Fennessy: You said that ICE severed the contract with a jail. Is that was that a surprise to LaSalle, which operates the jail?

Jeremy Redmon: Yeah, that's part of their argument. First of all, they deny the allegations and they argue, why is ICE and DHS taking this action and stopping this contract when the results of the investigations have not been released, that the office of the inspector general from DHS and ICE have not put out any findings when they looked into these allegations? We're here a year later. So they see this as really grossly unfair. In fact, some of the nurses I interviewed there and staff  — I interviewed one nurse, I interviewed a couple, the caseworker and then an officer there — they were surprised by the allegations. Their position was, you know, we take our jobs very seriously. We treat the detainees with dignity, respect and received compliments from them. They say that some of the positive things happening in the detention center have been overshadowed. One of the things they pointed to is, they said, “Look, a lot of the detainees who come here are getting medical care that they never received in their native countries.” And they cited pap smears, for example, or treatment for diabetes.

Steve Fennessy: I'm thinking back to 2011, actually, 10 years ago now when H.B. 87 was passed, which definitely restricted how employers could — could use immigrants who were not necessarily documented.

[Tape] Speaker 5: Matt Ramsey, a coauthor, said at the time the bill would give the police the right to demand immigration documents from anybody detained for any reason. It would also, he said, punish those who hired or harbored undocumented Americans. Our goal is, said Rep. Ramsey, to eliminate incentives for illegal aliens to cross into our state.

Steve Fennessy: And that seems to be like a county that would have definitely been impacted by that.

Jeremy Redmon: House Bill 87 — I covered it when it was passed in the state legislature — was really a major crackdown intended against illegal immigration. And some of the farming community — Agriculture is Georgia's largest industry — pushed back at that time, saying this is wrongheaded; It's going to hurt our economy. I'm not aware to what extent it had an impact in Irwin County. And these, in fact, things are supposed to be separate, right? This is state legislation and a local jail, but holding federal detainees. But, you know, it stands to reason that there could have been an impact. And I know there was impacts elsewhere in the state where agricultural workers — these are often, many of them migrant Hispanic workers who are attracted to the jobs here in Georgia — went into hiding or left because of the fear surrounding House Bill 87.

Steve Fennessy: When DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that his department was severing ICE's contract with Irwin County's Detention Center, did he say why?

Jeremy Redmon: He said basically DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards.

[News tape] 11Alive: In a memo, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed ICE to discontinue use of the facility, quote, as soon as possible.

Jeremy Redmon: And he said, “Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action, as we are doing today.” That was the extent of the basis for why this was happening. I said DHS have not publicly released any findings of they're looking into these allegations. And that's, again, a source of real consternation in Irwin County. But largely, this is a rural area that where the major crops are cotton and peanuts. And you'llcross —you'll pass by cotton fields as you're heading to the detention center. This is an area that is really struggling for jobs. The detention center itself is the largest private employer with about 200 jobs and a $10 million payroll. So if this were to close, as some fear, this would be a major blow to Irwin County.

Steve Fennessy: Is it true to say that over the last few months that the facility has not been taking any new detainees, but in fact, starting to send them to other facilities?

Jeremy Redmon: It wasn't until this month that we learned that there was around 40 left, and then ICE transferred them to two other facilities. They sent them to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, near the Alabama border, and some to Folkston ICE processing center near the Georgia-Florida border. But it was down to 40 this month. And now all of them are gone. Here's the thing is that this thing that's happening with Irwin is a cautionary tale for these other facilities like Stewart and in Folkston that have their finances tied up with these facilities. Stewart has had its own share of problems. Some detainees have died there from COVID-19 — as many as four, I understand. There are others died of illnesses there and several that have killed themselves in the detention center. So it's drawn the spotlight — has been under investigation before. That's really bittersweet for the activists who were behind the whistleblower complaint at Irwin that while they were glad to see ICE stopped sending people there, they don't want to see them sent to Stewart or else other detention centers in Georgia that are holding ICE detainees.

Steve Fennessy: Where would they want them sent?

Jeremy Redmon: Well, I think they don't want them detained at all. There is a philosophical argument from many of these activists that argue that if you accused of an immigration offense, that you shouldn't be held in detention, that there are other ways to track you and make sure you show up for your court hearings. By and large, a lot of these offenses are civil offenses, right? And so there is this argument among the activists that, look, why are we spending this taxpayer expense, putting them in these far-flung rural areas away from their families for extended periods of time and, some would argue, endangering their lives amid the pandemic, holding them in close confines when you could free them on bond and monitor them with electronic monitoring bracelets, for example. And there are some studies that show that the detainees held in these type of bond arraignments do show up for their hearings.

Steve Fennessy: Is there any indication that the Biden administration is open to that possibility?

Jeremy Redmon: I know that some in the Biden administration just oppose privately run immigration detention centers and taken a much more liberal approach to immigration enforcement than Trump.

[News tape] CBS: The Biden administration has provided new guidance to agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on how to prioritize when it comes to arrests and deportations. The Department of Homeland Security says the new rules will help ICE better allocate resources to address the most pressing national security, border security and public safety threats.

Jeremy Redmon: You see the result of it here with Irwin, where the DHS moved pretty quickly. You could draw a direct line from the whistleblower complaint to what's happening in Irwin, that all the detainees have been pulled out. The people down in Ocilla make the argument that while they do not agree with benefiting from the misfortune of others — these are people being locked up that are generating these jobs and the spending in that community — they argue, “Look, these people have broken the law and they've entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. They need to be deported and they have to be housed until they're deported. That has to happen somewhere. So why not here?”

Steve Fennessy: So what are they imagining the future is now for the Irwin detention center?

Jeremy Redmon: I don't know if they know the answer to that question. It was pretty grim from when I asked them the status of their Plan B. so this is this is a dire situation for the county. They're scrambling to figure out what to do next.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Jeremy Redmon. The Irwin County jail has been central to that county's economy. With the facility's future in jeopardy, county officials there are scrambling to find new inmates for the facility and to look for other ways to fill the revenue gap. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.