The Biden administration has decided to stop detaining immigrants in a pair of county jails facing federal probes in Georgia and Massachusetts, calling the decision an “important first step” in a broader review of the nation’s sprawling network of immigration jails.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to immediately terminate its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts and to transfer the few remaining detainees elsewhere, according to documents provided to The Washington Post. He also directed 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 directed ICE to “as soon as possible” sever its contracts with the Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia, a more complicated endeavor because the facility is county-owned but run by a private contractor.
Federal officials chosethe two facilities mainly because their detention rosters have shrunk and they are “no longer operationally necessary,” said a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s deliberations. Bristol is holding seven detainees out of nearly 200 beds; Irwin has 114 detainees out of almost 1,000 beds.
Both county jails are also under federal investigation for complaints of abuses against immigrants – allegations that remain open and unresolved – and those factored into Mayorkas’s decision, the official said.
In a memo to ICE directing the changes Thursday, Mayorkas said his “foundational principle” is that “we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.”
“We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” Mayorkas said 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.”
Officials 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. More changes could come as Mayorkas conducts a sweeping review of detention facilities in the coming weeks.
President Biden has pledged to end for-profit immigration detention and reverse former president Donald Trump’s push to detain as many immigrants as possible. He warned Congress last week that it is “long past time” for lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.
And his changes are having measurable impacts: Immigration arrests in the interior of the United States have plunged by more than half, records show. Jails that were holding more than 50,000 detainees a day under Trump are detaining approximately 20,000 now.
The Biden administration has been under increasing pressure from left-leaning lawmakers and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union to close detention facilities.
The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office came under state and federal investigation a year ago when staff members deployed pepper balls, a flash-bang grenade, and canines against immigrant detainees amid a dispute over coronavirus testing. Irwin is facing federal investigations after a former nurse filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that women held at the facility were subjected to unwanted gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies; the doctor who treated them has denied wrongdoing.
Mayorkas said in the memo that the Bristol facility southeast of Boston “is of minimal operational significance to the agency” and there is “ample evidence that the Detention Center’s treatment of detained individuals and the conditions of detention are unacceptable.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, D, faulted Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his staff for a May 1, 2020, incident at the jail, and urged DHS to terminate its agreements with Bristol, according to a December report. She said some detainees who had refused to submit to coronavirus testing and isolation, partly because of fear of catching the disease, threw plastic chairs at staff members, smashed walls and attempted to barricade the unit with tables, trash bins and appliances.
Healey said she did not condone the detainees’ behavior, but she said they had largely quieted when officers attacked with pepper spray and other materials. Three detainees had to be taken to the hospital and a fourth had to be revived by chest compressions, but she said he was not taken to the emergency room. Healey concluded that the sheriff’s office violated the detainees’ civil rights via “a series of institutional failures and poor decisions.”
Bristol also faced a class-action lawsuit last year alleging unsafe conditions during the pandemic that led to the release of dozens of detainees. U.S. District Judge William Young, a Ronald Reagan nominee, barred Bristol from accepting new detainees. But he also said in a May 2020 ruling that the jail’s staff had “admirably taken significant steps toward protecting the detainees” from covid-19.
Hodgson – an outspoken Trump supporter who once offered to dispatch jail inmates to build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border – criticized the judge’s rulings and disputed the attorney general’s findings, saying the DHS Office of Inspector General is still investigating the incident.
“I’d love to show everyone the security footage from the incident that night, because it shows my staff did everything right and by the book, and dispels many of the false claims being peddled by the political activist attorneys/publicists,” Hodgson wrote in a letter to the editor of the Sun Chronicle, a local newspaper.
Mayorkas did not detail in the memo to ICE acting director Tae Johnson his reasoning for closing the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., almost 200 miles south of Atlanta. But he said the agency should relocate staff, release or transfer detainees, and preserve evidence and witnesses needed for ongoing investigations.
The DHS inspector general’s office and the FBI are investigating allegations, earlier reported by Prism, that surfaced last year when a former nurse at the Irwin facility filed a whistleblower complaint saying that a doctor – later identified as Mahendra Amin – was performing hysterectomies and other unwanted procedures on female detainees. Amin has denied wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed.
Irwin no longer houses women at the facility; many have been released as the investigation is ongoing, and some have been deported.
Mayorkas said in the memo 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, the acting ICE director, has said that the agency will continue to arrest immigrants who match the new administration’s criteria.
“ICE will continue to ensure it has sufficient detention space to hold noncitizens as appropriate,” Johnson said in a statement. “Withdrawing from the Bristol agreement, and planning to close the Irwin facility, will not impair or in any way diminish ICE operations.”
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