The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Thursday morning that it will end its use of two facilities, including the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., where a whistleblower alleges a doctor performed unwanted hysterectomies and other medical procedures without consent.
According to a statement from DHS, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed Tae Johnson, acting secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to prepare to end the use of the facility “as soon as possible.” The Irwin County Detention Center is operated by La Salle Corrections, a private company. The preparations include “preservation of evidence for ongoing investigations, relocation of ICE personnel if necessary, and the transfer of detained noncitizens whose continued detention remains necessary to achieve our national security, public safety, and border security mission,” according to DHS.
“We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” Mayorkas said in a public 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.”
The second facility, the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, is also at the center of mistreatment allegations and is under federal investigation. DHS announced Thursday it is ending its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), which oversee’s the facility. A 2020 investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General found the BCSO violated the civil rights of immigrant detainees during an incident that occurred on May 1, 2020. On that day, detainees refused to consent to COVID-19 testing and isolation, according to a report by the state’s Attorney General published in December 2020, and were met with “excessive and disproportionate” force, including a flash bang grenade, pepper-ball launchers, pepper spray canisters, anti-riot shields and canines.
“Shame on Department of Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas for putting his left-wing political agenda above public safety by ending the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said in a statement to TIME. “This is nothing but a political hit job orchestrated by Sec. Mayorkas, the Biden Administration and other anti-law enforcement groups to punish outspoken critics and advance their partisan agenda to score political points.”
La Salle Corrections did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment about the DHS decision to end the use of the facilities.
La Salle has previously refuted misconduct claims at the Irwin County Detention Center. “It is well established that ICDC has a proven record of delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in a safe and humane environment and the health and welfare of those in ICDC’s care is paramount,” La Salle spokesperson Scott Sutterfield told TIME in a December 2020 statement.
According to DHS, the detainees who remain at both facilities will be transferred. Though ICE did not provide the current detained populations at each of the facilities, the agency says the daily average population at the Irwin County Detention Center so far this fiscal year has been 287 people, and at the Massachusetts facility, the average has been 18 people.
“We are thrilled about this development,” Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, said in a statement to TIME. Project South, a legal and advocacy nonprofit based in Atlanta, is one of the organizations who published Dawn Wooten’s whistleblower testimony that includes allegations that a doctor performed unwanted gynecological procedures on more than a dozen women detained at Irwin. “Given its extensively documented history of human rights violations, Irwin should have been shut down long ago. We will not rest until the women who suffered medical abuse at Irwin receive a measure of redress and compensation. And until ICE and the prison corporation LaSalle are held accountable for allowing the abuses to take place.”
Shahshahani is also co-council in a class action lawsuit against ICE that was filed in December 2020 on behalf of the women detained at Irwin.
In a public statement from DHS, ICE acting director Johnson said “ICE maintains a nationwide system of facilities for holding noncitizens whose detention is statutorily mandated, or who pose a public safety threat or risk of flight… ICE will continue to ensure it has sufficient detention space to hold noncitizens as appropriate.”
With reporting from Vera Bergengruen/Washington, D.C.