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Whistleblower Claims Female Detainees at Privately Run Georgia ICE Facility Had Forced Hysterectomies

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added her voice to the chorus calling for OIG to thoroughly investigate the allegations of the whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, a full-time nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia.

In the main part of her statement, Wooten alleged that medical staff at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility had responded maliciously to the coronavirus pandemic, refusing to test or treat immigrants showing signs of COVID-19, ignoring and shredding medical request forms and even falsifying medical records.

But she also made another startling allegation: Hysterectomies were performed on several female detainees without their informed consent. She said she and other employees were concerned that an outside doctor contracted by the facility “takes everybody’s stuff out.”

“That’s his specialty,” she said, referring to the doctor, an obstetrician and gynecologist later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin. “He’s the uterus collector.”

If detainees complained, she added, they were punished with placement in solitary confinement.

Dr. Amin denied the allegations.

“Everything is wrong, and if you want to talk, talk to the hospital administrator,” he said.

His attorney, Scott Grubman, also “vigorously” refuted the allegations against his client. Amin was one of several doctors who reached a settlement in 2015 with the federal Department of Justice after another whistleblower alleged they submitted false claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

ICE Health Services Clinical Services Deputy Assistant Director Dr. Ada Rivera said that only two ICDC detainees had been referred for hysterectomies since 2018, both with informed consent. She added that she “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”

But attorneys for several detainees said their clients underwent unnecessary hysterectomies or other gynecological procedures for which they had not been referred.

The complaint was filed with OIG on September 14, 2020, by Project South, an Atlanta nonprofit that describes itself as a “leadership development organization that creates spaces for movement building.” It documents Wooten’s allegations as well as those by immigrants interviewed by other advocacy groups joining Project South in the complaint.

For years, immigrants have complained about conditions at ICDC, the complaint noted, citing Project South’s 2017 report on the issue, as well as a 2017 DHS report finding that ICDC failed to meet ICE medical standards.

The complaint to OIG highlights ICDC’s apparent attempts to downplay the coronavirus in its facility. Staff has refused to test for the virus and documents any signs and symptoms of COVID-19 as “allergies,” the complaint says.

It also quotes Wooten’s allegation that “a lot of women here go through a hysterectomy,” noting at least five female detainees who had their reproductive organs removed while at ICDC between October and December 2019. In one case, the nurse said, a woman went in to have an ovary removed, but the doctor took out the wrong one, so she ended up losing both, rendering her infertile even though “she still wanted children.” That detainee also lost her womb, Wooten alleged.

“I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,” one anonymous detainee was quoted by Wooten and repeated by Project South. “It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

Project South Legal & Advocacy Director Azadeh Shahshahani called for ICDC to be “shut down immediately.” But staff attorney who wrote the group’s complaint, Priyanka Bhatt, admitted that she never spoke to anyone who claimed to have been forced to undergo a hysterectomy. She said that she included those scandalous claims by Wooten to trigger an investigation into all of the nurse’s allegations.

ICE Director Tony Pham promised that the complaint would be thoroughly investigated.

Scott Sutterfield, a spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections, the Louisiana-based for-profit company that runs ICDC, pushed back against “any implications of misconduct” there, accusing Wooten and Project South of chasing “long-held political objectives.”

“LaSalle Corrections has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of inappropriate behavior in our facilities and takes all allegations of such mistreatment seriously,” he said. 

 

Sources: washingtonpost.com, npr.org, law­andcrime.com, vox.com, projectsouth.org, OIG Complaint (Sept. 14, 2020)