Skip to Content

Statement on Abuses Occurring at Irwin County Detention Center

Dawn Wooten, a whistleblowing nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, reported last month that a doctor at the facility performed involuntary hysterectomies and other sterilization procedures on detained women in I.C.E. custody.  While we are outraged by these reports, we are not surprised. Our long fight for equality, dignity, and justice for people in jails and prisons across the South has taught us that institutions that confine our most marginalized community members — like immigration detention centers — too often operate with unchecked power. They work behind closed doors, under-scrutinized, and are ripe for inhumane conditions and human rights abuses.  

The United States has a troubling history of forcibly sterilizing populations that the state deems undesirable. This is particularly true of institutionalized people who are racial minorities, poor, and/or mentally or physically disabled. States began passing eugenics sterilization laws as early as 1907, when Indiana doctors began performing involuntarily vasectomies on hundreds of incarcerated men. These laws eventually passed in over 30 states, resulting in the involuntary sterilization of over 60,000 people across the nation. Before most states repealed the laws in the 1970s, forced hysterectomies of Black women in Southern states were so common that they were nicknamed “Mississippi Appendectomies.” Georgia is estimated to have been responsible for the 5th highest number of sterilizations in the country by 1963. Between 1909 and 1963, California forcibly sterilized at least 20,000 people as a part of a eugenics program that disproportionately targeted women of Asian, African, and Mexican descent. Between 2006 and 2010 California sterilized at least 148 incarcerated women, many of whom maintain that they were coerced. As recently as 2017, a Tennessee judge issued a standing order offering a 30-day sentence reduction to individuals who underwent permanent or semi-permanent birth control procedures.  

Within this historical and modern context, we can understand what occurred at Irwin County Detention Center not as an anomaly, but as the most recent installment in this country’s long history of using reproductive injustice to enact a racist and xenophobic agenda. Various state and federal actors —most recently I.C.E. — have repeatedly shown that they do not believe immigrants, women of color, and others most marginalized in our society deserve the same reproductive autonomy as white, able-bodied U.S. citizens. And as immigration detention grows more and more similar to the U.S.’s criminal-legal systems, we know that these abuses will only become more frequent and more difficult to uncover. Our work with clients incarcerated at Clayton County JailSouth Fulton Jail, and the Special Management Unit (S.M.U.) at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison illustrates the inherent brutality of institutions that deny their detainees even the most basic forms of agency and tolerable living conditions. We stand with our partners at Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and Sister Song in decrying I.C.E.’s latest actions and demanding that the Irwin County Detention Center be closed and the people detained there be freed.