Whistleblower raises detainee health concerns
Compassion | No evidence yet of “mass hysterectomies,” but problems remain
by Charissa Koh
Posted 9/23/20, 05:52 pm
Since 2010, Dawn Wooten has worked off and on as a licensed practical nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga. On Sept. 14, four advocacy organizations filed a complaint on behalf of Wooten and immigrants held there, asking the Department of Homeland Security inspector general to investigate the facility—and others operated by the same private company—for unsafe conditions.
The public outcry that followed largely focused on one allegation from the complaint: A single doctor performed hysterectomies on female detainees without their informed consent. The allegations remain unsubstantiated, but DHS has launched an investigation.
The section describing the hysterectomies occupied about two pages of the 27-page whistleblower complaint. It quotes two female detainees who said they heard about other women getting hysterectomies. A third described almost receiving a gynecological procedure she did not understand. Wooten said she and other nurses discussed the hysterectomies and a particular doctor who performed them.
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” she said. “That’s his specialty; he’s the uterus collector.”
Subsequent media reports featured a quote from one detainee: “When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp.”
The day after the complaint became public, 173 congressional lawmakers sent a letter urging the DHS inspector general to investigate: “These reports hearken back to a dark time in U.S. history in which 32 states passed eugenic sterilization laws. … [T]he accounts of immigrant women and nurses in the Irwin County Detention Center today are eerily similar.”
Priyanka Bhatt, an attorney at one of the advocacy groups that filed the complaint, told The Washington Post no detainees she interviewed had received hysterectomies against their will. “I didn’t speak to anyone who had one,” she said. “But the things we have heard are concerning, and we need to find out more information.”
The complaint did not name the doctor, but media reports identified him as Mahendra Amin, an OB-GYN in Douglas, Ga. Scott Grubman, Amin’s lawyer, said he denies the allegations. An attorney for Amin’s hospital said Tuesday it has received only two referrals of women in ICE custody for hysterectomies since 2017. The Associated Press reviewed medical records and interviewed lawyers representing four detainees who said they were nervous before Amin’s procedures or did not understand them. But AP found no evidence of an alarming rate of hysterectomies like the complaint alleges. Authorities are no longer sending detainees to Amin for care, a government spokesman said Tuesday.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told National Review an audit team would visit the Irwin County Detention Center to search for records verifying the hysterectomy allegations. “A medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will,” said Ada Rivera, medical director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Health Service Corps.
While the hysterectomy allegations have gotten the media attention, most of the complaint accuses the facility of violating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 detention guidance and ICE’s standards of care for detainees. Other whistleblowers have complained this year that LaSalle Corrections, which runs 18 ICE detention facilities in the South, has insufficient COVID-19 protocols.
The Sept. 14 complaint called the Georgia facility dirty, understaffed, and too crowded for social distancing. It said officials continue to transfer detainees to and from the facility and fail to properly quarantine new or those with COVID-19 symptoms. Wooten described detainees submitting multiple sick call requests with no response and said the sick call nurse commonly shredded medical request forms and fabricated vital records. When detainees did see a doctor or nurse, the language barrier often hindered their care. Consequently, some received medical procedures they didn’t understand or consent to.
One week after the whistleblower complaint was filed, the House Committee on Homeland Security released a report from a yearlong investigation into ICE detention facilities. Many of the problems detailed in the report are similar to the complaint about the Irwin County Detention Center: hundreds of unanswered sick call requests, dirty facilities, and trouble accessing interpreters.
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Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.