A year has passed since immigrant rights advocates filed a federal complaint about human rights violations, including invasive gynecological procedures without full consent being performed on women at an immigration prison in Georgia, but the survivors of these abuses are still waiting for justice and restitution.
The federal complaint made international headlines after advocates filed it with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, detailing horrific accounts from detained immigrants and whistleblower nurse Dawn Wooten. Even so, there have been grossly inadequate actions taken to hold Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) accountable for these abuses.
While the Department of Homeland Security ordered the ICE contract at Irwin County Detention Center to be terminated in May 2021, the prison still remains open. Worse yet — the immigrants who were previously detained at Irwin were transferred to other deadly ICE prisons in Georgia despite calls from advocates to release them. While House Resolution 1153 passed in October 2020 condemning the invasive non-consensual procedures and calling for full cooperation into investigations of Irwin County Detention Center, there have been no congressional hearings and no update on the status of the original Office of Inspector General complaint filed.
The survivors of Irwin County Detention Center deserve justice in the form of closure of the Irwin County Detention Center along with all ICE prisons, immediate accountability for the violations that occurred in ICE custody, immigration relief and reparations.
Georgia is home to three ICE prisons where eight immigrants have died in the last four years. There have been documented abuses affecting thousands of detained immigrants, ranging from medical neglect to forced labor. These horrible conditions can be attributed, at least in part, to a subculture of bigotry within the state that has created legal detention pipelines like anti-immigrant state laws and 287(g) programs that funnel immigrants into ICE prisons for minor infractions, and deny them equity and opportunity.
Wendy Dowe is one of the survivors of that system, and of an invasive non-consensual gynecological procedure while incarcerated at the Irwin County Detention Center. A Black immigrant from Jamaica, Dowe lived in Georgia for more than a decade, always in fear of the overly aggressive targeting of immigrants by law enforcement. A report on law enforcement in Gwinnett County, where Dowe lived, documented a pattern of racial profiling where immigrants often reported being stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
In addition to being subjected to warrantless searches, Dowe was attacked by police dogs while police looked on. “I kept telling the police to get the dogs off me, but they waited until my legs and fingers were bitten up for no particular reason,” Dowe recalls. That incident led to her arrest and transfer into ICE custody.
But nothing prepared her for the grim realities of the Irwin County Detention Center. The stress of being confined in treacherous conditions and separated from her children led to spikes in blood pressure and vision problems. One day while showering, Dowe fell, hit her head and fainted. Despite being in terrible pain, she was not transferred to an outside hospital because she was told she “didn’t have any broken bones.” This lack of care is common at the Irwin County Detention Center.
But the worst was yet to come. During a gynecology appointment, Dowe had been told that she had cysts in her stomach that needed to be treated. Very early one morning, weeks later, she was abruptly woken up and told to get dressed to go to see a doctor. Dowe assumed the visit concerned her high blood pressure, but instead, she was taken to a hospital and told she was having surgery to remove cysts from her stomach. She was given no other explanation.
When Dowe woke up from surgery, she was back at the Irwin County Detention Center. “There were bandages on my stomach and pain on my sides and under my navel,” Dowe recalls. At Irwin, no one would tell her what procedure she had been subjected to, and no one provided any medication for the terrible pain, even as the wound became infected, leaking yellow pus. “To them, I was just another person without documents, I was nobody,” she says. “I was scared of not coming out. I wrote a will to my brother telling him what to do with my children because I felt like I wasn’t going to come out alive.”
Thereafter, she was pressured to undergo a hysterectomy, which she refused. She requested a second opinion but was told ICE would not pay for it. Dowe bravely advocated for herself by calling several government hotlines to report the abuses she faced, but was deported to Jamaica shortly thereafter.
But Dowe didn’t give up on her efforts. While in Jamaica, she had medical experts in the U.S. review her records, which revealed overly invasive treatment and the removal of one of her fallopian tubes, without her permission or consent. “They violated me when they operated on me without my full knowledge and consent,” she said. “It’s my body, but I didn’t have any control.”
Dowe is one of at least 40 Irwin County Detention Center survivors who underwent invasive gynecological procedures without their full knowledge and consent. In a recently published report, another survivor shared that after finding out her fallopian tube had been removed without her consent, she was extremely distressed and suffered periods of depression and anger knowing that she could not naturally conceive children anymore. Yet another survivor noted after her gynecology appointment that she “felt pain like childbirth” and felt like her “ovary was rotting from the inside.”
The threat of state-sanctioned violence against women’s bodies, and in particular, Black and Brown communities, is unfortunately not new to the Peach State. Georgia was the 32nd state to pass a eugenic sterilization law in 1937, and sterilized more than 3,000 individuals, the fifth-highest in the country. Eugenics policies across the U.S. legalized pseudo-scientific practices used primarily by white elites to control Black and/or Indigenous people, immigrants, poor women, and people with disabilities who they believed were unfit or “feeble-minded.”
These white supremacist policies continue today in many different forms, including in ICE practices and xenophobic, anti-Black legislation. Just like the Georgia State Board of Eugenics in the 1930s, the majority-white male legislators of the current Georgia General Assembly often continue to make decisions that harm communities of color and women — from its passage of the “Jim Crow voter suppression bill” to a draconian anti-abortion bill and scores of anti-immigrant bills.
The road to accountability and reparations for these abuses promises to be long and grueling. “I’m speaking out to bring awareness to us women, mothers, daughters who got abused at the hands of ICE so that it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Dowe says. “I would like to hold the U.S. government, ICE and the Irwin staff and doctors accountable for what happened to me, and to all the others — physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m calling for justice.”
She and other survivors of Irwin have been calling for the immediate closure of the jail as a first step. “Irwin is not a place to hold any human being, regardless of what the charges are, or immigration status,” Dowe says.
Since the filing of the Office of Inspector General complaint last year, a class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the survivors at the Irwin County Detention Center in December 2020. A federal investigation is still ongoing and the prison remains open. After a May 2021 order from the Department of Homeland Security to end ICE detention at the facility, all of the immigrants being detained at Irwin were transferred to other dangerous and deadly ICE facilities in Georgia, including Stewart Detention Center and Folkston ICE Processing Center, despite calls from advocates to release them.
While Irwin’s termination of the ICE contract should be celebrated, Dowe, other Irwin County Detention Center survivors and all people impacted by ICE still deserve justice.
The federal government and the state of Georgia must end all ICE detention and detention pipelines; hold all parties accountable (including the companies that profit from private prisons and jails); help provide immigration relief to survivors; shut down the Irwin County Detention Center completely; and pay reparations to all survivors of the Irwin County Detention Center and other immigrant prisons who faced abuse, as suggested by The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Justice is long overdue.
Author’s note: Beyond simply being interviewed for this piece, Wendy Dowe also contributed through deep participation in the collaborative conceptualization and writing of this article.