Dawn Wooten (left) the whistleblower who filed a complaint about the conditions at the Irwin County Detention Center, accompanied by protestors at a news conference in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Jeff Amy/AP
On November 9th, the Georgetown University Gender Justice Initiative hosted a virtual event entitled: Forced Gynecological Procedures and Other Gender Abuses in Detention. Moderated by Denise Brennan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, the event featured a panel of three women who represented various perspectives on the issue of immigration detention and recent reports of forced hysterectomies of ICE detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. The panel included: Silky Shah, Executive Director of the Detention Watch Network (DWN), an NGO focused on abolishing immigrant detention centers in the U.S.; Alejandra Pablos, a social justice activist, organizer, and writer who works on reproductive and immigration justice; and Azadeh Shahshahani, a human rights attorney and the Legal & Advisory Director for Project South, an NGO based in Atlanta that focuses on a variety of social issues in the Southern United States.
Brennan began the discussion by asking each of the panelists to address the reports of ongoing brutality at border detention facilities, which many are calling “concentration camps” and “torture facilities.” Brennan referenced some of the reports, underscoring the fear many detained women reportedly felt in the centers. One woman was purportedly so afraid of being forced to undergo a procedure that she requested deportation because she did not want to lose her reproductive system. Other women were threatened with psychiatric procedures.
Shah responded first, and she began by providing an overview of detention facilities. Shah’s work at DWN focuses on detention because her organization opposes the punitive, American model of incarceration. Shah’s organization condemns the use of detention as a driver of deportation, as the system exists merely to facilitate deportation. According to Shah, detainees come from various backgrounds: many are legal permanent residents, some are seeking asylum, and some are undocumented individuals. ICE and other law enforcement officials continue to target an array of individuals. There are about 215 detention centers in the U.S., and about 80% of these facilities are operated by private prisons. Shah points out that there are over 50,000 migrants in detention, and that the number of detained migrants has increased drastically under the Trump Administration. Shah attributes this growth to President Trump’s nativists policies and rhetoric which often frames immigration as a national security threat. Shah asserts that detention centers deserve greater awareness among the American public because of the negative impact of COVID-19 on the livelihood of detained immigrants. Indeed, our responses and immigration policies should not be punitive, but protective.
Pablos spoke next, reminding the audience to remain active and engaged on immigration reform, despite the outcome of the election. After all, detention centers will still exist under the Biden Administration. Pablos talked about her experience going in and out of the court system and being detained by ICE in Arizona. Experiencing the detainment process first-hand made Pablos realize how many people, including the government, view non-White immigrants as enemies. According to Pablos, ICE agents are trained to see immigrants as an enemy, and the prison system’s collaboration with ICE makes the system highly complex. While Pablos was detained for two years, her mother did not share the news of her detainment with her family because of the shame it would have brought them. Pablos proceeded to discuss how people inside detention centers are too scared to ask for healthcare—for example, asking to go to a hospital usually necessitates being handcuffed and accompanied through the city, which would itself be a shameful experience. Pablos witnessed, through her experience, the lack of autonomy that detainees have over their bodies and the poor conditions immigrants are forced to endure. For example, she described sleeping on metal and a one-inch pad for two years with overhead fluorescent lights that kept her awake during the night.
Shahshahani was the last of the three women to speak. She discussed her work at Project South and the conditions the organization has documented at detention centers in Georgia, like the Irwin Detention Center. They have always known about the inhumane treatment of prisoners in detention centers, but Project South was able to acquire actual evidence of sexual abuse at the Irwin Detention Center in Atlanta. In addition to sexual abuse, detainees were deprived clean water and ICE was found to use solitary confinement excessively. After hearing reports from detained women and those of the whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, Project South submitted a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some documented issues included medical staff deliberately not testing detainees for COVID-19, despite having symptoms. Notably, detention centers only started testing detainees after Project South issued a complaint. Other findings included reports that detention center management was lying to detainees about how many COVID-19 cases existed in the facilities. Shahshahani emphasized how ICE has not been forthcoming with information about COVID-19 and the treatment of women in the centers. In fact, ICE is actively working to deport witnesses and survivors of medical abuse to hide evidence of wrongdoing. Shahshahani ends with a call for the U.S. government to be held accountable for the widespread abuses and for the detention centers to be shut down. Project South intends to push for a full congressional investigation into the matter and to expose humanitarian violations to the UN.
Brennan started the Q&A session with a question regarding the relationship between the forced procedures and the long history of genocide against native, black, and brown women in the U.S. and the West. Pablos responded first, emphasizing how ironic it is that she, a native Mexican, was fighting a deportation case on land historically stolen from Mexicans (Arizona). She believes that the forced procedures are inextricably tied to the history of White supremacy in the United States and the ability of the government to control the immigrant population and decide who gets to have children. Bodily autonomy is key, but the biggest threat to the freedom of immigrants is the prisoner industrial complex and policing.
Shah then highlighted a key question for everyone to consider: “What does reproductive justice mean in detention?” Quite frankly, it means no detention. Reproductive justice, according to Shah, cannot exist in a system of incarceration. FY20 saw the most deaths in ICE custody in 20 years. According to Shah, there is no scenario where detention is good—the U.S. must move in a direction where all people have agency over their bodies.
Shahshahani believes that the fight to abolish the detention centers is currently in favor of the abolitionists, but the scope of the work cannot focus solely on detention of immigrants. This is part of a larger system of incarceration in the United States. One victory Shahshahani highlighted is the Atlanta mayor’s decision to sever ties with ICE. Project South drew attention to the hypocrisy of the city of Atlanta’s collaboration with ICE, with the help of trans and black women working to shut down the Atlanta detention centers. Project South aims to turn detention centers into community centers. Shahshahani insists that progress can only be made when people join forces.
Brennan concluded the session with one final question for the panelists, asking what they would like to see from the Biden Administration regarding immigration reform, specifically as is it relates to detention facilities. Shah pointed out how much power Biden will have as president when it comes to the issue of detention. Indeed, the executive authority on immigration is enormous. The U.S. has invested substantially in ICE and detention centers across the U.S. since 9/11, primarily through the creation of DHS under Bush. Under the Obama Administration, President Obama consolidated facilities and tried to create a “better” system, but he did not reduce the number of detention centers. Moreover, President Obama eliminated family detention, but Trump reintroduced it. In fact, Trump took the system a step further. Therefore, according to Shah, Biden has to do more than simply “roll back” Trump’s policies. President-Elect Biden must ensure that ICE’s funding is cut and that they are held accountable. Executive power can reduce the amount of money allocated to ICE and can shut down the facilities, both of which should be done.
Pablos believes the new administration should focus on freeing those detained. Americans have to fight for everyone affected by the system—the conversations about defunding and decarceration must continue. Shahshahani responded by encouraging the audience to join their local fights. She referenced the achievements in Georgia as a result of the coalitions formed. The Biden Administration, according to Shahshahani, must discuss abolition first and foremost. Eliminating private prison corporations is a positive first step, as this was nearly achieved under the Obama Administration; however, widespread change did not occur.