(An undocumented woman from Mexico waits to be deported from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), center on April 28, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by John Moore, via Getty Images.)
The Shocking Whistleblower Complaint
A whistleblower complaint was filed on Monday by several legal advocacy groups, on behalf of a nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Atlanta-area detention center documenting “jarring medical neglect” within the facility, including a refusal to test and treat detainees for the novel coronavirus and an excessive amount of hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women without consent.
(Aerial view of the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, around 200 miles south of Atlanta.)
The complaint was filed with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by advocacy groups Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse employed by the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia.
The ICDC is a private prison company operated by LaSalle Corrections that has also been accused of requiring employees who may be COVID-19 positive to still report to work, in addition to concealing who has tested positive for COVID-19, and mixing COVID-19 exposed individuals with those who are not.
Wooten alleges that ICDC consistently used a particular gynecologist outside of the facility who almost always opted to remove all or part of the uterus of his female detainee patients:
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said, adding that, “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad. We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly…is he collecting these things or something…Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world.” — Dawn Wootan, whistleblowing nurse at ICDC facility
No Informed Consent
Wooten went on to confirm that many of the detained women told her that they didn’t understand the procedure they were being forced to undergo. Ms. Wooten explained: “These immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them.” Ms. Wooten explained that the sick call nurses are not usually fluent in Spanish and will use the internet or get help from other inmates to interpret, rather than using the language line as medical staff are supposed to.
Even more concerning, Wooten says that some of the nurses who didn’t speak Spanish bypassed the language barrier by obtaining consent from detainees “by simply googling Spanish.” If true, this would mean that nurses, who are not fluent in Spanish and had no real way to confirm true medical consent, had not actually gotten legal verbal consent to perform a hysterectomy procedure. There is also the issue of whether or not written consent was even obtained.
Additionally, the complaint alleges that nurses are shredding medical documents. Ms. Wooten stated that “it was common practice for the sick call nurse to shred medical request forms from detained immigrants who were requesting to go to the medical unit.” Wooten also said that the sick call nurse sometimes fabricated records such as vital signs without ever seeing the individual requesting medical help. If nurses at this ICDC facility are willing to fabricate and destroy medical records, it is not that farfetched to assume that they would lie about obtaining verbal consent from the immigrant patients undergoing surgeries.
“They’re experimenting with our bodies”
Several immigrant women have reported their concerns to Project South, who have detailed them in the complaint. They are worried about how many women have received a hysterectomy while detained at ICDC. One witness told Project South in 2019 that the Irwin facility sends many women to see a particular gynecologist outside the facility, but that some women who are being detained did not trust him. This same witness also confirmed that she knows that “a lot of women here go through a hysterectomy” at ICDC.
Another detained immigrant witness told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done. When this witness discussed these surgeries with the women in question, she reported that the women “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.”
(A woman lies on a bed at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the GEO Group, in Adelanto, California on April 13, 2017. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, via Reuters.)
The witness detainee went on to explain, that it was as though the women were “trying to tell themselves it’s going to be OK.” She said: “When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”
Nurse Dawn Wooten also stated that detained women expressed to her that they didn’t fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy. She said: “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.” Wooten explained that if the immigrants actually do understand what medical procedure is about to be done, some of them refuse to go and they say “they’ll wait to get back to their country to go to the doctor.”
One detained immigrant reported to Project South that staff at ICDC and the doctor’s office did not properly explain to her what procedure she was going to have done. She reported feeling scared and frustrated, saying it ‘felt like they were trying to mess with my body.’ When she asked what was being done to her body, she was given three different responses by three different individuals. She was originally told by the doctor that she had an ovarian cyst and was going to have a small twenty-minute procedure done drilling three small holes in her stomach to drain the cyst. The officer who was transporting her to the hospital told her that she was receiving a hysterectomy to have her womb removed. When the hospital refused to operate on her because her COVID-19 test came back positive for antibodies, she was transferred back to ICDC where the ICDC nurse said that the procedure she was going to have done entailed dilating her vagina and scraping tissue off. The nurse first told the detained immigrant she was going to get this procedure done because she had heavy bleeding, but then told her it was because she had a thick womb. The woman quickly responded that she never had heavy bleeding in her life and was never told by the doctor that she had a thick womb. Instead she stated that the doctor had described an entirely different procedure that did not involve scraping her vagina. She stated: ‘I tried to explain to her that something isn’t right; that procedure isn’t for me.’ The nurse responded by getting angry and agitated and began yelling at her. She told Project South that seeing the nurse’s nervous and angry response confirmed ‘that something was not right.’ — excerpt from the Project South Complaint, filed 9/14/20
ICE Finally Comments
After initially refusing to comment about the allegations stated in the whistleblower complaint, Medical Director of the ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) Dr. Ada Rivera issued statements to Law and Crime, who first published the details of the whistleblower complaint Tuesday:
“ICE’s mission is to protect the homeland and to swiftly and quickly remove people from the country; the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities, any assertion or claim to the contrary is false and intentionally misleading.”
Dr. Rivera went on to cite ICE data, saying that since 2018 “only two individuals at Irwin County Detention Center were referred to certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities for hysterectomies in compliance with National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) standards.” Rivera also said detainees at ICE facilities are “afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will.”
(Undocumented women and children, who have been detained at the border are locked in cages at an ICE facility as documented by the ACLU. Photo via Customs and Border Protection.)
The statement provided also said medical care decisions are made by medical personal, not law enforcement and claimed that it was “unfortunate” that the allegations contained in the whistleblower complaint were shared with the media “without allowing the government to examine or take appropriate action.”
Rivera went on to explain that ICE protocols dictate a seven-step approval process for medical procedures: an evaluation for an apparent medical concern; referral to an off-site specialist (OB/GYN, for the procedures described in the complaint); recommendation for surgical procedure, if needed; a MedPAR request; review and approval of the Regional Clinical Director, except in cases of surgery to fix severely broken bones; confirmation of global surgical procedure (GSP) codes and subsequent MedPAR approval; a surgical procedure pending consent of the detainee. If the allegations in the complaint are true, very few of these institutional protocols have been properly followed.
ICE then issued a second statement to Law and Order ten minutes after sending the first one that stated:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results. That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
Politicians Get Involved
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) issued the following statement that called for an investigation:
If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint — including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women — are a staggering abuse of human rights. This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought.
Additionally, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said the following: “If true, it’s unthinkable, abhorrent, and a grievous human rights violation. Cruelty and dehumanization of the most vulnerable have been a constant feature of Trump’s immigration policy. But performing involuntary hysterectomies on immigrants? We need a full investigation.”
(An immigrant woman, recently released after spending six months in an ICE detention facility, clutches her ICE identification bracelet in her hotel room in Los Angeles, September 2018. Photo by Mario Tama, via Getty Images.)
House Oversight Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NC) and Chairman for the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), sent a letter to the DHS Inspector General in response to "horrific allegations" in a whistleblower complaint filed yesterday to request an emergency investigation into the shocking allegations.
Rep. Maloney also issued a public statement that reminded ICE of a November 2019 letter that was sent to the Inspector General, urging “a thorough review by your office” of ICDC and other ICE detention facilities in Georgia based on health and safety issues that Committee staff observed. In addition to requesting an investigation into Monday’s whistleblower complaint, Reps. Maloney and Raskin have requested an immediate briefing on actions the Inspector General has taken in response to the initial claims made in 2019.
What You Can Do To Help
The details from this complaint are horrific and have left many, myself included, feeling enraged and helpless. But, there are several things you can do now to help.
First, you need to call both of your Senators and your Representative at the federal level to express your outrage at the allegations, and to demand a complete investigation of the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) operated by the private prison company, LaSalle Corrections.
You can look up the names and phone numbers of your Senators and Representatives by clicking the links I have added and you can also click here to get instructions. Then, you need to call each of their offices and speak to a live person. Don’t fax or email and don’t leave a message — it’s critical that you get a staff member on the phone to hear your complaint and then take the message. (They have to record all of these and it really makes a difference to do it this way.)
If you are someone who gets nervous, here is a script for you to use:
“Hello, I’m __________ from __________. I’m appalled at the reports of hysterectomies being conducted on immigrant women in detention at the Irwin County Detention Center. I am urging the Senator/Representative to speak out against this atrocity and to call for a full investigation into this and every ICE facility where claims have been made of inhuman standards and human rights violations. Thank you.”
You can also donate to any of these organizations that are assisting with this complaint, that include:
If you have specialized skills such as legal training or you are bi-lingual, you might want to also contact these organizations to offer your services or to get further direction on how you can assist in their cause.
It’s also helpful to talk about what is happening with anyone you can — you can forward this article for proof and help in explaining the details. Be sure to keep talking about this with everyone who will listen to keep these possible human rights violations alive in the mainstream consciousness.
I will leave you with this last quote from the complaint from a woman in the ICDC detention facility: “We’re very afraid of being incarcerated here and dying here. We are daughters, we are mothers, we are wives, we need freedom. Please help us.”
Update by Associated Press
Update: An review conducted by the Associated Press of medical records for four women and interviews with lawyers revealed growing allegations that Dr. Mahendra Amin, the gynecologist at the center of the recent allegations of mass hysterectomies at the Irwin Detention Center, performed surgeries and other procedures on detained immigrants that they never sought or didn’t fully understand.
Some procedures could be justified based on legitimate medical problems documented in the records, but there is now an issue of informed consent that exists with regard to many of the other surgeries.
A 39-year-old woman from Cuba, who is currently a detainee, was told only that she would undergo an operation to treat her ovarian cysts, but her lawyers still cannot confirm what procedure she got a month after having the surgery. After requesting her medical records, Irwin County Detention Center gave her more than 100 pages showing a diagnosis of cysts but nothing from the day of the surgery.
Dr. Amin has performed surgery or other gynecological treatment on at least eight women detained at Irwin County Detention Center since 2017, including one hysterectomy, according to Andrew Free, an immigration and civil rights lawyer working with attorneys to investigate medical treatment at the Irwin Detention Center in Georgia. Free went on to say that, “Doctors on behalf of the attorneys are examining new records and more women are coming forward to report their treatment by Amin.”
While the investigation thus far by the Associated Press did not find evidence of mass hysterectomies as alleged in the recent complaint filed by a nurse at the detention center, Free has confirmed, “The indication is there’s a systemic lack of truly informed and legally valid consent to perform procedures that could ultimately result — intentionally or unintentionally — in sterilization.”
Dr. Amin claims that he has only performed one or two hysterectomies in the past three years and his attorney, Scott Grubman, said in a statement: “We look forward to all of the facts coming out, and are confident that once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”
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Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.