A Rare Glimpse Inside a Georgia Immigrant Detention Center
“What is the point of ICE having me here?” Nilson Barahona asks at the beginning of the new short film, The Facility.
From the perspective of many people locked up in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the point, it seems, is to break people.
Irwin County Detention Center, a privately run facility in Ocilla, Georgia, became notorious for some of the most egregious abuses waged by the U.S. government against migrants. Extreme medical negligence —including exposing detainees to COVID and ignoring obvious signs of outbreaks— was an early notion that something terrible was going on inside.
“This has been a total hell,” Andrea Manrique, who suffered in Irwin for almost two years, bluntly explains the reality inside.
Produced and directed by Seth Freed Wessler, and based on his reporting for The New York Times Magazine, The Facility documents through video-conference recordings of the testimony of Barahona and Manrique, interned at Irwin for months at the start of the pandemic, how immigrant detention centers were grossly ill-prepared to handle the spread of COVID-19.
Not only was it nearly impossible to practice social distancing in their cells and barracks, but detainees didn’t have access to soap, guards came in and out without masks, and desperate pleas for medical help went unheeded. One detainee looks into the camera and says, “I’m afraid I’m going to die.”
Even the medically vulnerable were not afforded proper personal protective equipment. One woman who appears in the film displays her makeshift cloth mask to the camera. Another man shows his own jerry-rigged mask: a plastic cup and a piece of headphones.
The homemade masks weren’t the only way detainees sought to protect themselves. They went on hunger strikes, produced and leaked videos exposing their conditions, took to wearing marker-inked Black Lives Matter t-shirts, and filed legal complaints to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.
Guards and medical staff were also at risk. A nurse whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, spoke out and filed a complaint to Congress about the dangerous mistreatment and negligence in the facility. Wooten also broke the news that ICE had been working with a gynecologist for women detained in Irwin who conducted coerced and sometimes medically unnecessary surgical procedures, including hysterectomies, on over 50 women.
“I thought this country was going to protect me,” says Manrique, the woman who described Irwin as total hell. She had come to the country to seek asylum. Instead, agents of the U.S. government exposed her to a deadly virus, retaliated against her protests, beat her, submitted her to solitary confinement, and locked her up for two years.
After briefly becoming the international flashpoint of the Trump administration’s punishing immigration policies, as well as the subject of congressional investigations, Irwin no longer detains immigrants. And yet many of the same problems persist throughout the archipelago of over 200 immigration detention centers in the United States.
El Faro has partnered with Field of Vision and Time Magazine to make this documentary available to the public.
“The film is a poignant behind-the-scenes look at the indignities, abuses, and cruelties of ICE detention—all those elements that push migrants to the edge,” says El Faro English editor John Washington, author of The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US Border and Beyond. He adds: “But The Facility also reveals something else: the human will and spirit that supersedes those cruelties.”
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