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Forced Sterilization: Can We Control ICE?

On September 14, Dawn Wooten, a nurse employed at Irwin County Detention Center, filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of detained immigrants. The complaint details alleged medical neglect, the fabrication of medical records, refusal to test for COVID 19, and a general environment of hazardous and negligent medical care. The portion of the complaint however, that has received the most attention is the allegation of forced and unnecessary hysterectomies performed on women held at Irwin.

Irwin is a private facility operated by LaSalle Corrections on behalf of ICE in Ocilla, Georgia. While both ICE Health Services and the hospital where the supposed hysterectomies took place deny much of Ms. Wooten’s complaint, the whistleblower attracted attention in Congress and the Georgia legislature, with several representatives calling for investigations and even the abolition of ICE.

Tragically, forced sterilization has a ghastly history in the United States and abroad. In a practice so horrific as to be designated an act of genocide by the United Nations, the machinery of power has always sought to exert crude social control through the domination of birth itself. Whether in Puerto Rico or California [CP1] in the mid-20th century, Nazi concentration camps, or contemporary Xinjiang, China, the State has exemplified a chilling readiness to engage in genetic cleansing of those it considers undesirable.

To situate such practices within a conception of social control, it is tempting here to identify government actors as controlling forces. And indeed, certainly in the lives of the victims of forced sterilization, this would seem to be the case. However, in the realm of social control theory, first popularized by Albert Reiss in the early 20th century, these phenomena should not be understood as such.

In its most basic form, social control theory posits that we are all naturally deviant absent some controlling force. Much of our common experience with the criminal justice system suggests such reasoning is at least plausible: Why don’t we drive 100 on the highway? Because we don’t want to get a ticket. What stops us from punching the guy who insulted our children? The threat of an assault charge, or even condemnation from our family, neighborhood, or other stakes in conformity. These forces are meant to reign in our worst impulses as part of effective socialization.

Can we apply such a micro theory to our macro institutions? In a country with qualified immunity, law enforcement officer bills of rights, absolute prosecutorial immunity, and a general lack of transparency for government actors, one might reasonably answer no. It appears that many of our harshest institutions, such as ICE detention facilities, have arrogated themselves to positions beyond the reach of democratic accountability. Those “controlling forces” - so crucial in social control theory - seem absent or utterly incapable of exerting any influence. How can a nation unable to bring charges against the killer of Breonna Taylor expect to hold accountable a faceless behemoth such as ICE?

Which controlling forces can we rely on to police our governments most brutal actions? In an era of historically low confidence in Congress, most Americans will likely not eagerly await a positive outcome of a potential inquiry. The President, of course, also does not seem a likely candidate to address the horrors of ethnic sterilization. As we stare down a public health crisis, an economic meltdown, a potential constitutional crisis, and a reckoning with our criminal justice system, do we have the capacity to prevent ICE from performing forced hysterectomies? One certainly hopes we do.

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