Casting Off Sins at an ICE Detention Center

By Trevor Dworetz, Grassroots Campaigns Fellow

Casting Off Sins at an ICE Detention Center

Activists, including HIAS Grassroots Campaigns Fellow Trevor Dworetz, far right, demonstrate outside the Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, September 25, 2020.

(Trevor Dworetz)

With pieces of cinnamon raisin challah in my hand, I joined seven Jewish leaders last week to protest human rights abuses at the Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia.

A few weeks ago, a nurse blew the whistle on the ICE-contracted facility, reporting that a doctor there performed hysterectomies on a number of detainees without their consent.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta organized the action. Standing beside a gravel road leading to the center, he called for an end to the inhumane practices by LaSalle Corrections, the for-profit company that operates Irwin Detention Center, and tied the alleged atrocities to the broader injustices of our immigration system.

Stories of human rights abuses in ICE facilities extend far beyond the barbed wire of Irwin. At the Krome Detention Center in Miami, Muslim detainees were recently forced to choose between eating pork, which is forbidden by their religion, or rotten halal meat. HIAS co-sponsored a clergy letter demanding ICE ensure Muslims have access to unexpired halal meals. 

“As Jews, we know these kinds of horrors, these actions, all too well,” Rabbi Lesser reminded us outside the detention center. “While we wish we could say never again, we are watching as it happens.” 

We performed a tashlich ceremony, a ritual in which Jews cast off their sins from the previous year by symbolically tearing off pieces of bread and throwing them into water. 

Lily Brent, the executive director of Repair the World Atlanta, held a pink sign that read “Informed Consent,” and asked, “If we remember that we are all human beings, we all have human rights, we all deserve human rights, how can we stand by while our parents, our children, our siblings, our friends are abused and exploited in this matter?”

After the service, we hiked toward the detention center, where a few orange-suited detainees were outside. Separated from us by a road and a tall barbed-wire fence, one man jumped up and began waving his arms. Almost immediately, a security officer darted out of the building and told us we were too close. Shortly afterwards, we left.

Democratic congressional representatives recently visited the detention center and called for it to be shut down; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for an investigation. The doctor who is said to have performed the hysterectomies will no longer see patients. 

The atrocities at Irwin are a symptom of an immigration system that puts those seeking refuge in harm’s way. Now is not only a time to only bear witness but also a time to act. Click here to learn how you can do so today.

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