“The Traumas of Irwin Continue to Haunt Me”: Non-Consensual Surgery Survivor Seeks Restitution, Calls to Shut Down Detention Centers

What happened to me at Irwin is not a one-off aberration—it’s a legacy of American white-supremacist pseudo-science going back decades. For justice to be served, the government, ICE and all culpable individuals must be held accountable for what happened to me.

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A rally outside the Berks County Services Center, an immigrant detention center in Reading, Pa., on August 19, 2021. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in May it would cut the contract for another detention center, the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga. (Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia—a notorious prison known for its human rights abuses—has finally been forced to end its ICE contract. That’s a huge victory for immigrants and their allies, who advocated for its closure for over a decade. But for all Americans who want to see human rights as the guiding principle of the country’s immigration and asylum policies, there’s still a long road ahead to overhaul a system that has failed to live up to its ideals, needlessly and carelessly destroying lives in the process. 

I should know. In 2019, I became one of about 40 women subjected to invasive non-consensual gynecological surgery while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Irwin. Those human rights violations are currently under investigation by governmental agencies and the courts. We survivors are seeking restitution for the irreparable harms we have suffered and are challenging our deportations.

Our illegal and inhumane surgeries at Irwin have been documented by advocates and reported in the media. But they did not happen in a vacuum. They are a consequence of a cultural through-line of racism and anti-immigrant fervor, reinforced by systemic inequities and bias. To prevent these brutalities in the future requires more than ending ICE contracts like at Irwin, it requires an overhaul of what the U.S. believes, and how it behaves, at the intersection of immigration, race and law enforcement.

Our illegal and inhumane surgeries at Irwin … did not happen in a vacuum. They are a consequence of a cultural through-line of racism and anti-immigrant fervor, reinforced by systemic inequities and bias.

Prior to my arrest by ICE, I lived in Georgia for more than 10 years as an immigrant from Jamaica. During some of those years, I worked as a cook and a nurse assistant, while raising my three children who are citizens born in Georgia. And, for most of that time, I lived in dread.

Georgia’s governor ran on a platform to “round up criminal illegals and take ’em home.” Law enforcement where I lived was known for aggressive raids and roadblocks, enthusiastically participating in programs to funnel immigrants into ICE prisons, followed by deportation. An American Civil Liberties Union report found that Gwinnett County law enforcement engaged in racial profiling, and that many immigrants were stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Because I was not just an immigrant, but am also Black and speak with a distinct Jamaican accent, I felt especially vulnerable.

Georgia’s governor ran on a platform to “round up criminal illegals and take ’em home.” … Because I was not just an immigrant, but am also Black and speak with a distinct Jamaican accent, I felt especially vulnerable.

Once, when I was pregnant, I was stopped and searched because they were looking for undocumented Jamaicans in the area. When I refused to reveal information about other immigrants, I was told I would be locked up for a long time and would be forced to have my baby inside a prison.

When I was stopped again, prior to my arrest, I was attacked by police dogs who bit me while the officers looked on. I kept asking them to get the dogs off me, but they waited until my legs and fingers were severely bitten. I was shocked and confused. And then they took me into custody and sent me to Irwin afterwards.

The stress of being confined and separated from my children led to spikes in blood pressure and vision problems. One day, I fell, hit my head, fainted and woke up in the medical unit but was told I wouldn’t be taken to a hospital because I didn’t have “any broken bones.” 

But the worst was yet to come. A doctor told me that I had cysts in my stomach that needed to be treated, but there had not been any follow-up. Then, weeks later, I was woken up early one morning and told I would be going to see a doctor. I assumed it was about my high blood pressure, but when we arrived at the hospital, I was told I was getting surgery to remove the cysts. 

When I awoke from surgery, I was back at Irwin. There were bandages on my stomach and pain on my sides and under my navel, but no one would tell me what surgery I’d been subjected to. And I received no medication for the terrible pain, even as my fever rose and as the wound became infected, leaking yellow pus. To them, I was just another person without documents; I was nobody. 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.

To them, I was just another person without documents; I was nobody. 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. … It’s my body but I didn’t have any control.

When they pressured me to get a hysterectomy, I refused. I felt lucky to survive, but as soon as I started making complaints to government hotlines about the abuse I had faced at Irwin, I was deported back to Jamaica. It was only then I learned that one of my fallopian tubes had been removed without my full knowledge and consent. It’s my body but I didn’t have any control.

I now know that what happened to me at Irwin is not a one-off aberration—it’s also a legacy of American slavery and white-supremacist pseudo-science going back many decades. Women, especially from Black and brown communities, have been historically subjected to state-enforced sterilization because the white legal and/or medical establishments deem them “feeble minded” or unfit. After Georgia passed a eugenic sterilization law in 1937, it sterilized more than 3,000 individuals.

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 A 4-year-old at the Families Belong Together march in D.C. in 2018. (Sasha Patkin / Flickr)

Earlier this year, the legislature’s hostility to women of color was on full display as Capitol police violently dragged and arrested a Black female legislator for seeking to enter the governor’s office while he was signing the Jim Crow voter suppression bill into law behind closed doors.

Since being deported back to Jamaica, my life has been extremely difficult. The traumas of Irwin continue to haunt me, and it goes beyond the surgery. I can’t scrub away the humiliation as I remember being shackled from my arms to my waist to my feet when going to see a doctor, or being forced to get undressed under the brazen gazes of the guards.

And there’s a heavy toll on my kids as well. After being in the U.S. for more than a decade, I can’t get a job in Jamaica that will support me and my children. I have nothing here. The two still living with me are 12 and 15, and they’re taking it very hard. They are going through the same trauma and headache that I’m going through.

For justice to be served, the U.S. government, ICE and the administration and all culpable individuals , need to be held accountable for what happened to me—physical, mental and emotional. Like my fellow survivors, I want Irwin and the other ICE prison facilities to be shut down, and for the whole system to be reimagined, based on a different sense of global migration and human rights framework.  

It won’t stop the pain, but at least we’ll know that something has been done. I would like to see that no other mother, child, grandma or brother has to endure the same situation I went through with my family.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2020 on behalf of the survivors of Irwin, a federal investigation is ongoing and advocates are continuing to call for abolishing ICE and its deadly prisons along with reparations and immigration relief for Irwin survivors. Ending the ICE contract at Irwin is a good step, but only a small part of addressing the dysfunction and injustice of the U.S. immigration system.

In the end, this is about more than reparations for us, it is about repairing the soul of America, so it can truly be a democratic haven and a champion of human rights. That’s the road to redemption for all of us.

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About

Wendy Dowe is a community member, mother, and friend. Under ICE custody, Wendy was subjected to invasive non-consensual gynecological procedures at Irwin County Detention Facility in 2019. Two years later, from Jamaica where the U.S. deported her to, she continues the collective fight to shut down immigration detention facilities.