Mass Hysterectomies at Immigrant Detention Center? Here Are the Facts.

Whistleblower files official complaint on disturbing conditions at Georgia detention center.

A whistleblower who worked as a nurse at a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia has come forward with a claim that immigrants are facing serious medical neglect in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as an unusually high rate of hysterectomies.

The whistleblower is Dawn Wooten LPN. She has worked at the facility for three years as a licensed practical nurse, and has over 10 years of experience working as a nurse in prisons. She originally worked full time at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia but was demoted to an on-call position in mid-July after repeatedly complaining to staff leadership about the dangerous working conditions. Irwin is a private prison which houses immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private company that runs immigration detention facilities in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana.

The Government Accountability Project and Project South have filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General on Wooten's behalf. The complaints detail the alleged abuses she witnessed while working at the facility. The majority of Wooten's complaints have to do with a grave mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also speak to a pattern of medical neglect and raise concerns about hysterectomies performed on detainees.

The complaint states that the private facility has willfully disregarded the CDC's COVID-19 guidelines. Wooten claims that the facility has repeatedly refused to properly treat or test symptomatic detainees and has failed to enforce any sort of social distancing with detainees who have confirmed or suspected cases. The treatment of the staff is no exception. They allegedly have not been provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and have been required to work even if they are symptomatic.

Wooten claims that the number of cases at the facility has been underreported. According to ICE, 31 people detained at Irwin have tested positive for Covid-19. Wooten told The Intercept that at least 50 detainees and 15 staff had tested positive as of July, when she was demoted, based on the number of people she personally knew who had tested positive.

Negligent medical care was apparently common even before the pandemic. According to Wooten, 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. Sometimes the nurses even fabricated records such as vital signs without ever seeing the individual requesting medical help. Many of the detainees reported long wait times for medical requests due to these types of practices, and sometimes they weren't seen at all.

Nurse Dawn Wooten standing with protesters who have signs that say things like "Abolish ICE" Dawn Wooten LPC speaks out with the support of local protesters.Jenni Girtman

Wooten's accounts of these dangerous conditions and medical neglect have been supported by dozens of interviews with current detainees in the facility which were included in the Project South complaint. They have also been corroborated by another member of the medical staff who chose to remain anonymous but interviewed with The Intercept.

The most shocking portion of the complaint details the high rate of hysterectomies happening within the facility. A detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at Irwin between October and December 2019 who had hysterectomies done. When asked about the surgery, the women seemed confused and were unable to explain why the procedure was needed.

A hysterectomy is the removal of a woman's uterus. In some cases, such as uterine cancer, it is a necessary procedure. However, in most other cases, hysterectomies are done to improve a woman's life, not to save her life, as it can relieve pain, discomfort, or heavy bleeding, but there are often other ways of treating or dealing with these problems. That being said, hysterectomies are very common. In fact, 1 in 3 women in the United States has one by age 60, according to the CDC.

Wooten expressed concern that while some women have heavy menstruation or other severe issues that would require hysterectomies, "everybody's uterus cannot be that bad." Wooten explained that a specific offsite doctor seems to be administering an abnormally high rate of hysterectomies, stating "Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody."

She also stated that other nurses have marveled at the problem amongst themselves, saying things like, "That's his specialty, he's the uterus collector." The complaint does not specify an estimate of the total number of hysterectomies, just that they are occurring at an unusually high rate.

The report is particularly concerning because it doesn't seem that the women receiving the major surgery know what they are getting or why. Wooten stated that the sick call nurse tries to communicate with the detained immigrants in Spanish by simply "googling Spanish" instead of using the LanguageLine that healthcare professionals are supposed to use.

One female detainee claims she was told by three different people that three different things were going to happen. She was originally told by the off-site doctor that she had an ovarian cyst and was going to have a small twenty-minute procedure done, involving 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. When the hospital refused to operate on her because her COVID-19 test came back positive for antibodies, she was transferred back to Irwin, where the nurse said that the procedure she was going to have done entailed dilating her vagina and scraping tissue off. She reported feeling frightened and angry, saying it "felt like they were trying to mess with my body."

Picture of Irwin County Detention Center from above Irwin County Detention Center

Another woman said she was not properly anesthetized during an ovarian cyst procedure and overheard the doctor say he had mistakenly removed the wrong ovary, she then had to have the correct ovary removed as well, rendering her unable to have kids.

"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," one detainee said, according to the complaint.

An ICE spokeswoman, Lindsay Williams, said on Tuesday that the agency does not comment on complaints made to the Office of the Inspector General but added that, "ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results. That said," the spokesperson added, "in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve."

Dr. Ada Rivera, the medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, strongly refuted the allegations. He said that according to ICE data, only two individuals at the Irwin center in Georgia were referred for hysterectomies since 2018. "These recommendations were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved."

Nancy Pelosi also responded to the complaint, calling for a thorough investigation of the disturbing claims. She drew parallels to dark instances American history in which American doctors cruelly experimented on minorities in the name of medicine. "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." she said.

If true, the allegations would not only be against US laws and CDC guidelines but also against international law. The United Nations defines "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group" as an act of genocide and a crime under international law.

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