About a mile from the center of Ocilla, Georgia, a two-stoplight town nearly 200 miles south of Atlanta, sits a bleak boxy building surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. A hand-painted sign reads “Irwin County Detention Center.” With 1,200 beds, this private prison is the largest employer in Irwin, a county of 10,000 people. For years it did good business, bringing much-needed jobs to this impoverished part of south Georgia.

But by the middle of 2009 the prison sat nearly half empty. It needed more inmates to keep the business afloat. The facility’s private management company, and the county, began to court today’s most lucrative detention market: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE.

ICE runs the world’s largest immigration detention system, relying heavily on local jails and private facilities in far-flung communities like Irwin County. Rather than operating them itself, the agency leases beds from local jails or contracts with private corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, billion-dollar companies that spend millions on federal lobbying to ensure that the market stays strong. Private companies also inspect and monitor prospective and contracted prisons on ICE’s behalf. These entities are responsible for the health and welfare of more than 33,000 immigrant detainees each day. Immigrants who are detained before deportation can spend anywhere from a few hours to years in custody.

Deportations have reached record levels under President Barack Obama, and demand for detention facilities has increased. Starting in 2002, ICE had funding for 19,444 beds per year, according to an ICE report. Today, ICE spends about $2 billion per year on almost twice the number of beds.

ICE’s reliance on facilities like the Irwin County Detention Center has put small rural towns at the center of one of today’s most contentious policy arguments — how to enforce immigration law. A yearlong investigation by The Nation shows how much politics has come to rule detention policy. Even as Georgia and Alabama passed harsh new immigration laws last year designed to keep out undocumented immigrants, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that politicians from both states were lobbying hard to bring immigrant detainees in. ICE succumbed to the pressure, sending hundreds of detainees to the financially unstable facility in Georgia that promised to detain immigrants cheaply. That promise came at the expense of the health, welfare and rights to due process of some 350 immigrants detained daily in Ocilla.

Last June, Irwin County Commissioner Joey Whitley sat in his office in Ocilla. He had a lot on his mind. A brutal drought had raged for weeks, drying out the fields in this farming community. The county was negotiating an increasingly slim budget. And the detention center was on the verge of default.

The county’s survival was deeply intertwined with the detention center. Five years earlier, Irwin County had helped the owners secure funding to renovate the prison, in return for what officials thought would be a steady flow of revenue. Instead, the facility was now more than one-third empty and over $750,000 behind on its taxes. Profits were nowhere to be found. About a hundred jobs were at risk.

The end of the legislative session that May had created another problem. Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, signed HB 87, one of the toughest immigration laws in the country. Thousands of migrant workers who traveled to the fields each year had bypassed Georgia altogether. Irwin County felt the impact. Local businesses, like the laundromat and the grocery store, were hurting because Latino residents were afraid to leave their homes. Meanwhile, millions in crops were at risk.

The solution to both problems seemed to be immigrants. Irwin County needed more in the fields. But it also needed more detainees to fill the prison.Filling the detention center would be “good for everybody,” said Whitley. “It’s a good facility. We just need some inmates to keep it up and running.… It’d be a terrible loss if it closed.”

“We would get by,” he added. “But it would really hurt.”

Whitley knew. It had closed before. The Irwin County Detention Center had gone through several iterations, holding US Marshals Service detainees in the early 1990s and then operating as a youth boot camp for a few years. The building sat unused until it was purchased in 2004 by Terry O’Brien, whose company, Municipal Corrections, had been incorporated that year. Soon thereafter, the prison reopened, under the operating control of a former deputy sheriff named Michael Croft and his company, Michael Croft Enterprises. The prison was used to house inmates from other counties, whose lockups were full to capacity.

O’Brien and Croft convinced Irwin County that a bigger facility would attract federal customers and pushed for an expansion. In 2007 the county floated $55 million in lease revenue bonds — which do not require taxpayer approval — to nearly double the number of beds. Theoretically, revenue from the additional inmates, generated by daily, per-prisoner rates paid by the federal government — would bring in profit.But the renovated detention center, which reopened in January 2009, did not make enough profit to both meet its huge biannual payments to bondholders and pay its bills. By the middle of 2009, the Irwin County Detention Center was running deep in the red. People in Ocilla said Croft left town suddenly. Last they heard, he was somewhere out in Texas.

That summer, a new company, Detention Management LLC, took over operations, partnering with Municipal Corrections. O’Brien became a member of its management team. Executives promised to exploit their connections in Georgia and in Washington, DC, to attract ICE’s business and turn the detention center around. County leaders were hopeful. As Hazel McCranie, president of the Ocilla-Irwin Chamber of Commerce, put it, “You’ve got to go out and get a contract with ICE. That’s your salvation.”

Detention Management’s website lists five leaders: Terry O’Brien, Robert “Skip” McLean Fuller, Charles “Bud” Black, Tony Turpin and Thomas C. Rapone. None have much experience running immigrant detention facilities, but they do have long histories in the corrections industry — histories tainted by myriad scandals, including pay-to-play schemes and accusations of inmate abuse.

In 2002, the name Charles “Bud” Black surfaced in a pay-to-play scandal that rocked the state’s powerful Board of Pardons and Paroles. Detention Management Services, a private probation company Black co-owned, had in March 2000 paid board member Bobby Whitworth thousands of dollars in “consulting” fees to push a law that would benefit private probation companies. Whitworth was convicted of public corruption; Black was never charged — he sold the company before the scandal broke. In 2006 he founded the similarly named Detention Management LLC.

In 2001 Tony Turpin lost his post as a regional director of the Georgia Department of Corrections for spending $16,000 in unapproved state funds to renovate his home. He later served as warden of Lee Arrendale State Prison, which became notorious after an 18-year-old prisoner was found raped and strangled to death in his cell block in 2004. “It is not a dangerous, out-of-control facility,” Turpin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that year. “Do incidents occur? Sure they do.”Thomas C. Rapone was known in Irwin County as Detention Management’s “Washington man.” After a long career as a US Marshal and Massachusetts public safety commissioner, he served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Correctional Services Corporation, once a major company that ran juvenile and adult detention facilities across the United States.

Correctional Services Corporation had a reputation for scandal: including the holding of juvenile inmates long after their release date, abuse of immigrant detainees and pay-to-play schemes. During Rapone’s tenure as CSC’s chief operating officer, state and federal agencies launched several investigations into the company. In 2003, New York State fined CSC $300,000 for failing to report meals, trips and other gifts purchased for more than a dozen elected officials in exchange for contracts. During another investigation that year, former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich considered severing the state’s contract with the company after reports accused staff members of sexually abusing and intentionally intoxicating inmates at a juvenile detention center.Detention Management did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. When asked whether the record of its top executives aligned with agency standards, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said, “It would be inappropriate for ICE comment on this issue.” It would also be inappropriate, she said, to comment on any concerns about sending detainees to a failing private prison.

The Irwin County Detention Center offered ICE a particular bargain — a point state politicians reiterated in letters courting the agency. “ICE currently houses detainees with private providers at a price of $69.00 to $90.00 per day in Georgia,” wrote Representative Jack Kingston, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, in September 2010. “ICDC is prepared to charge significantly less than the current rate, only $45.00 per detainee per day. This cost reduction will result in annual savings of over $10 million to the Department and the taxpayer.” Conservative Republican Senator Johnny Isakson also wrote letters on behalf of the Irwin County Detention Center after the detention center’s warden contacted his office, and met personally with senior ICE officials to push them to send detainees there.

Initially, ICE officials seemed reluctant. E-mails obtained through open records requests showed they were concerned about the detention center’s distance from legal services and ICE staff. On September 20, 2010, Atlanta Field Office Director Felicia Skinner received an e-mail from the ICE Congressional liaison’s office in Washington that said that if “this idea gets pushed hard enough by the right people,” ICE could be pressured to use Irwin “more than we planned…. Where those bodies come from is anybody’s guess.”The concerns coming from Washington echoed those of the ACLU and others about housing detainees in rural prisons. “The main problem I would see for us using Irwin as a long-term high-population facility relates to conducting weekly visitation by the Detained Unit, the service of documents, court, etc., due to not having staff on-site or near the facility,” read the e-mail from an official whose name was redacted.

But political pressure seemed to win out. On December 9, 2010, Senator Isakson sat down with Beth Gibson, ICE’s assistant deputy director, and Gary Mead, executive director for enforcement and removal operations, along with staff from the office of Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss. Senator Isakson wanted ICE to guarantee it would keep at least a hundred beds full at the Irwin County Detention Center.

He suggested the agency start by immediately transferring female detainees from the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, a rural lockup a 300-mile drive from Irwin County. The facility has a long history of human rights issues. In a recent report, the Women’s Refugee Commission cited the facility’s “inhumane conditions.” Detainees are not allowed in-person visitations — half-hour visits with friends and family take place through a video monitor. They lack access to lawyers and many have reported inadequate food. Human rights monitors would hear similar complaints when they began visiting the Irwin County Detention Center.

Weeks before Christmas, ICE’s Atlanta field office told Etowah County officials that it planned to move their detainees to Georgia. Officials at Etowah were incensed. The county had been detaining immigrants for over a decade, bringing in $5.2 million a year in revenue. For the next few months, according to ICE records, Alabama politicians met with high-ranking ICE officials, including director John Morton, while Georgia politicians held phone conferences with ICE. Trying to work out a deal that would satisfy both states, ICE officials passed e-mails back and forth. The issue was not what facility would best detain these immigrants safely but how to best avoid political blowback.

While Georgia had many important people lobbying for the Irwin facility, Alabama politicians sat on the appropriations committees in both houses of Congress, giving them a firm hold on ICE’s purse strings. Alabama Representative Robert Aderholt, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and chairs its Subcommittee on Homeland Security, met numerous times with ICE officials. Even the Etowah County Sheriff flew to DC to try to stop ICE from pulling out.Elliot Williams, one of ICE’s legislative liaisons, sent an e-mail to Mead with a solution that could please everyone. “We can move a hundred women out of etowah [sic], and replace them with a hundred others,” Williams wrote. “Not a zero-sum issue.” According to e-mails, ICE would simply find more “bodies” to fill the beds.

Aderholt would see that there was money to do it. In March 2011, ICE Director Morton sat before the House Subcommittee, hands clasped before him on the heavy wooden table. Morton listened as Representative Aderholt, flanked by members of the committee, reiterated his commitment to funding ICE detention.”Dollars are scarce in Washington these days,” Aderholt said. “But I’m proud to say that this budget request does not cut funds for illegal immigrant detention space. As chairman of this subcommittee, I pledge to you that we will fund every dollar needed to house and detain illegal immigrants in order to keep them off the streets.” He urged Morton “to ensure that these dollars are used wisely and that we get the most out of each and every dollar.”

E-mails show that ICE read between the lines. “I do not believe we will be allowed to leave Etowah without serious repercussions against our budget,” Mead wrote to senior ICE officials on March 29, a few weeks after the appropriations meeting.

In the end, ICE agreed to send long-term detainees to Alabama from New Orleans. The Irwin County Detention Center got some detainees from Alabama, and the new flow would also keep Etowah County cells full. Representatives from both states were appeased.

Meanwhile, in Irwin County, a financial crisis was coming to a head. The prison could not pay its bills to the county or to investors who held the municipal bonds that helped finance it. It also owed hundreds of thousands in back taxes to the city and county. Despite this, Terry O’Brien insisted that things were improving; every few weeks, he wrote optimistic letters to investors that promised the facility would be filled.In a bid to force Municipal Corrections to pay its back taxes, Irwin County’s Board of Commissioners voted to initiate foreclosure proceedings against the prison. The county had already borrowed $400,000 from a local bank to cover its operating expenses. Either the detention center paid what it owed or the county could take over and sell off the property for the amount of the debt. Bondholders too were fed up, and sent a consultant to review operations at the detention center.

On January 9, 2012, Irwin County attorney Warren Mixon faced Municipal Corrections in court. The company now owed about $1.6 million in back taxes and penalties. The relationship between the town and the detention center, once so promising, had gone sour.

The judge sided with Irwin County, which would allow officials to put the facility up for auction. But just days before the county was to list the sale, bondholders forced the company into bankruptcy in a Las Vegas court, blocking it. The county, along with bondholders, has hired a lawyer in Nevada. May is the earliest the county could receive its money.

In February, Mixon said that he heard rumblings that a few people may be interested in buying the facility — and even companies that have expressed no interest could still purchase it. “A lot of the big prison management groups, they may just be sitting back, waiting to pounce,” he said. Despite its long history of failed prisons, Ocilla could end up with yet another detention center if the facility goes up for auction. And in a county that is still strapped for jobs and cash, people would likely welcome it in.

Throughout months of negotiations over dollars and bodies, the detainees living in the Irwin County Detention Center remained unheard. If the prison closes, these men and women will be shipped to other facilities in Georgia. But if it remains open, officials in charge will have to grapple with conditions that have grown intolerable.

Detainees have long petitioned ICE monitors for better food and more prompt medical care. Complaints have been passed along to the warden, who has promised in several e-mails to remedy issues. By the end of 2011, detainees had waited long enough.

“On January 14, 2012, 4 ICE detainees from Fox 4 were sent to the hole because they refused to eat the food served on that day,” read a typed statement detainees sent out to friends, family and advocates. “The hole” is solitary confinement; the report said detainees had refused to eat for three days.

In response to the hunger strike, the thirty-two detainees from that unit were locked down in their cells for several days. According to interviews with detainees and family, detainees could not go to the legal library or to the commissary, where those with the means often bought food to supplement, or replace, meals.

Food has been the salient issue for months. Over the course of nearly a year, detainees has told officials that they were hungry. “We’re fed like dogs,” said Florent Firmin Kalonji Kalala, who has been at Irwin since September. “I just feel humiliated — that’s the feeling I have everyday.”

Kalala, 31, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and raised in Côte d’Ivoire. In 1998, he arrived in Atlanta, learned English, and a few years later graduated from Mercer University. After a few years in Canada he returned to Atlanta, and later managed a popular bar and lounge. He and his girlfriend had a child. Last June, he was stopped for a traffic violation, which revealed an outstanding DUI charge in another county from years before. He pleaded guilty, was jailed, and in September, was moved into ICE custody and sent to Irwin County, where he became an ICE detainee known best by his five-digit inmate number.

On January 25, Kalala and several other members of their cell block, Fox 9, held their own hunger strike. For three days, they refused to eat. But little changed. A few days later, Kalala was put in the facility’s segregation unit, reportedly for yelling, “I’m just tired of his place,” in front of an officer. He remained there for twenty-seven days.

Kalala said he has been denied regular medical care for his high blood pressure, and that mice scurry into his cell at night. This is unconfirmed, in part because when human rights observers from the ACLU of Georgia toured the facility last September, officials barred them from seeing the segregation unit where Kalala was later held. “It makes us think, ‘What is the issue?’ ” said Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the Immigrant’s Rights Project at the Georgia ACLU.

In response to questions about hunger strikes and other complaints, Christensen, the ICE spokesperson, said that detainees are fed three hot meals a day. A dietitian reviews the meal plan annually, she said, and detainees have access to a law library at least five hours a week. She added that after reports of slow delivery of dental care, the detention center has implemented efforts to track medical and dental referrals, “to ensure the timely delivery of care to ICE detainees.

“But human rights advocates, immigrant detainees and their families still question why ICE began to use this remote facility at all.

“From the beginning when detainees were being placed at this facility the question we posed for ICE was ‘How come?’ ” Shahshahani said. “We never were provided a clear answer. It was just silence.”

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.