On May 20, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas sent a memo to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) advising ICE to terminate contracts with two detention facilities, according to an article from The Washington Post.
Mayorkas has ordered ICE to “immediately terminate its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts and to transfer the few remaining detainees elsewhere.” He also advised ICE to “rescind an agreement with the sheriff’s office, which trained deputies to screen inmates arrested for crimes to see if they are also eligible for deportation.”
Mayorkas also ordered ICE to “sever its contracts” with the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), located in Ocilla, Georgia. ICDC came under public scrutiny in September 2020, when four organizations filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility, and other whistleblowers at the facility. Wooten >alleged that ICDC was not taking proper COVID-19 precautions to protect the detainees and the staff. Wooten and other whistleblowers also alleged that there was a high rate of hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women at the facility and that in some cases, the women seemed to be unclear as to why they were getting the procedure.
These whistleblower complaints drew national attention, later prompting a Congressional investigation and a resolution. On April 29, 2021, Detention Watch Network announced that all the women at ICDC had been vacated from the facility. Now, the advocacy organizations that helped file the whistleblower complaint involving Wooten are celebrating the recent news regarding both facilities.
“The announcement signals a major win for people who’ve been detained at the facility and have bravely spoken out against the abuses they’ve experienced and also for organizations in Georgia that have long fought to shut it down,” Detention Watch Network’s May 20 press release states. According to the press release, “this is the first time ICE has cut a contract for a detention center in recent years.” Advocates state that “today’s announcement is long overdue” and continue to demand “the Biden administration continue to cut detention contracts, shut down facilities for good and ensure that people are released and not transferred to other detention centers.”
An anonymous DHS official told the Post that federal officials chose these two detention centers “mainly because their detention rosters have shrunk and they are ‘no longer operationally necessary.’” The Post reports that Bristol “is holding seven detainees out of nearly 200 beds; Irwin has 114 detainees out of almost 1,000 beds.” Both facilities are currently “under federal investigation for complaints of abuses against immigrants,” which the DHS representative says Mayorkas took into consideration when he made this decision. According to the Post article, a state and federal investigation into the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office was launched in response to May 2020 allegations of civil rights violations.
“We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” said Mayorkas in a statement. “This marks an important first step to realizing that goal. DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards. Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action as we are doing today.” In the memo to ICE acting director Tae Johnson, Mayorkas said ”he would schedule a meeting next week to lay out the plan to close Irwin and to ‘discuss my concerns with other federal immigration detention centers’ across the United States.” Johnson said in a statement that “ICE will continue to ensure it has sufficient detention space to hold noncitizens as appropriate. Withdrawing from the Bristol agreement, and planning to close the Irwin facility, will not impair or in any way diminish ICE operations.”
According to the Post, “[o]fficials said the moves are part of the Biden administration’s broader plan to overhaul the nation’s network of more than 200 county jails and detention centers housing civil immigration detainees in deportation proceedings.” The article states that more changes could be down the line as Mayorkas “conducts a sweeping review of detention facilities in the coming weeks.”