Dawn Wooten’s allegations about the unsanctioned sterilization of immigrant women being held at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., has kicked up a hornet’s nest of outrage and at least one congressional investigation.
Ms. Wooten, a Black nurse who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, filed a 27-page whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security in September. She alleges staff allowed unsanitary and unhygienic conditions, ignored the threat posed by Covid-19, left detainees unprotected, denied them coronavirus tests, shredded records and performed questionable hysterectomies.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is among congressional lawmakers who called for a report back from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, told reporters, “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.”
In her complaint and in several press conferences, Ms. Wooten fleshed out elements of her allegations.
Staff at Project South say Ms. Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, told them that the rate at which the hysterectomies have occurred was a red flag for her and other nurses at the detention center.
Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South’s legal and advocacy director and counsel for Ms. Wooten, said, “These new shocking revelations further highlight the extent of the egregious abuses at the facility. The fact that Black and Brown immigrant women are held in an extremely vulnerable position at this prison where they have no control over their bodies and no say about what is done to them is sickening. Irwin should be shut down immediately and people should be freed. The United States Government as well as the private prison corporation running this prison should be held accountable.”
Among the women allegedly subjected to the medical horror were migrants from Haiti and Mexico.
“We’ve questioned among ourselves, like goodness, he’s taking everybody’s stuff out … That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector,” Ms. Wooten said. “I know that’s ugly. He’s 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.”
Ms. Wooten provided a detailed account of the center’s forced sterilization to Project South, a Georgia-based nonprofit which works to eliminate poverty and genocide, and to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. Both institutes issued a formal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security, calling for an investigation into the center’s health care practices. Other non-profits on the ground who are working on this case include the Georgia Detention Watch, and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights have partnered to expose the abuses and are fighting against these injustices and inhumane practices in the ICE facility and elsewhere.
John Whitty, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, said GAP is also working with Ms. Wooten to protect her, give her whistleblower status. GAP, whose website describes the organization as the international leader in whistleblower protection, from advocacy to litigation, and Project South, sent a letter to Congress on Sept. 17 sharing Ms. Wooten’s allegations of egregious health practices at the Irwin County Detention Center.
Mr. Whitty said Ms. Wooten was demoted in July from a full-time nurse to “as-needed.” In the complaint she said she believes the demotion was in retaliation for raising coronavirus protocol concerns. He praised Ms. Wooten for stepping forward, saying that GAP greatly values her courage to blow the whistle because without her testimony these grievances would continue indefinitely.
“Our main concern is to make sure that all immigrants get adequate medical care and that they are treated humanely,” he told The Final Call. “The importance of courageous people coming forward in these types of circumstances and in the face of formidable retaliation makes it so important to protect them when they come forward. We owe them a debt of gratitude. I encourage Congress, the inspector general and the state legislature to move quickly to investigate these allegations.”
In a statement released to the media, Mr. Whitty also said: “We ask Congress to recognize this failure on the part of ICE detention to adequately care for its detainees and employees and to act so that these violations do not continue to threaten the health of those within ICE detention.”
“We have documented conditions at Irwin for many years. The treatment of immigrants at this prison has always been horrid,” added Atty. Shahshahani.
Ms. Wooten reported cases of inadequate medical care, destruction of records and a complete disregard for the proper procedures around Covid-19.
The facility is run by LaSalle Corrections. In a statement made available to media, a spokesperson said: “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. Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC.”
A Final Call reporter left a message seeking comment but at press time the newspaper has not received a response from Scott Grubman, the attorney representing the doctor implicated in several of the cases. But in a statement released to the media, Mr. Grubman said, “We are aware of the whistleblower’s allegations as they relate to Dr. (Mahendra) Amin, and vehemently deny them. Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia.”
Jamille Fields Allsbrook said reports coming out the detention center are “incredibly disturbing.”
“I’m surprised and not. If the allegations are true, they must be investigated and people held accountable,” continued Ms. Allsbrook, the director of Women’s Health and Rights at the Center for American Progress.
“Dawn Wooten has alleged that women received hysterectomies and that the staff lied to them. One woman claimed that she was going in for excessive bleeding, another was said to have cysts on her ovaries. They didn’t understand. If it happened to one or 20, it’s unconscionable.”
“There has been a history of gynecology being done on Black women without anesthesia and they sterilized inmates. We’ve also seen it come through in other ways,” she said. “Recently, ICE has tried or been trying to deny a couple women’s abortions. And they still shackle pregnant women in prisons and jails so this is not shocking.”
“Is this racism or misogyny? It’s a pure combination of racism and sexism to create a situation and then it goes unchecked, is not cared about. Those most affected are low-income people, people on Medicaid, predominantly Black and Latina women—it’s about controlling Black and Brown bodies.”
Dr. Shantella Sherman, an award-winning historian, journalist and publisher of Acumen magazine, said the United States has a long and sordid history of sterilizing women and men, particularly Black, Brown and Native American. She has spent considerable time researching eugenics and government-sanctioned efforts to sterilize people seen as a burden on society, the mentally ill, the poor, the disabled and others who fell out of the desired category of Whiteness.
“I would say that in eugenics terms there will always be a disproportionate number today of Black, Hispanic and Native American women who will be affected by forced sterilizations in institutions based on the fact that they are detained at higher numbers,” said Dr. Sherman, whose work focuses on genetics, eugenics and racial identity. “White women in prison, any woman is subject to sterilization. The belief is that criminality is in the DNA. The belief is that their children out there in society are a burden to the city and state. These children have no grounding if their mother is in jail. These children are more likely to have learning problems, cognitive difficulties, developmental issues.”
She would like to know more about the company which runs and operates the ICE facility; what hospital(s) are detention staff using; what number of women have been affected; where are the records that would have to be filled out to do these procedures?
“Information is not provided in a vacuum. The information we’ve gotten is very vague. We haven’t gotten numbers or the percentage it represents,” Dr. Sherman explained. “How many were White or not? What’s the number the whistleblower is saying had hysterectomies?”
“Records will make this case far more grounded. Was the whistleblower able to identify people? Do they have families? There are a lot of things that are not answered. We have to really pay attention to the information. I’m not sure what to believe and how far to carry it. We have to be very, very careful about this.”
Dr. Sherman, immigrant activists and advocates and others castigated the government for allowing inappropriate, inhumane and possibly criminal conditions to continue to persist in the care of immigrants and detainees.
Michelle Brane, senior director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told The Final Call this particular case has hit a nerve.
“Congressional representatives are asking for an investigation,” she said. “At the very least, we have to keep the pressure on, hold someone accountable. We will continue to follow up and alert the public. The biggest thing for me is that sadly this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Conditions are inappropriate and inhumane, the government is separating children from their families, detainees are living in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. There are patterns and practices of inadequate health care and a disregard for human life.”
“The allegations we hear are shocking, but they come against the history of sterilization in this country. We don’t know yet how pervasive this is and if it is limited to this facility. … It is not a question that this does not fit in what we professionals see. We’re seeing migrants and immigrants detained, and them sending back asylum seekers, returning them to dangerous situations. This differs from public opinion which says Americans want passage and protection for refugees and for the U.S. to be a refuge.”
Mr. Whitty said a congressional delegation visited the Georgia facility. Legislators are monitoring the whistleblower’s complaint.
“The reports of mass hysterectomies cause grave concern for the violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights detained people,” nearly 200 federal lawmakers wrote in a letter. “Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, their language, or their incarceration deserve to control their own reproductive choices, and make informed choices about their bodies.”
ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams said in a recent statement that the agency does not comment on complaints like Ms. Wooten’s that are filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General but she responded forcefully to the allegations.
“That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve,” she said.
Others say while Ms. Wooten’s complaint concerns a single detention center, it reflects a broader pattern of abuses that routinely occur in immigration detention, especially those operated by private prison companies.
ICE officials and the Irwin County, Georgia hospital where female detainees are sent, have released records indicating that two hysterectomies have been performed on women at the facility in the past three years. But interviews by attorneys and firsthand accounts of women who have come forward show that women were subjected to other invasive gynecological procedures that they did not give their consent to, fully understand and may not have been medically unnecessary.
“In just a matter of time we’ll learn extent of it. We will see what they’re doing to men too,” said Michelle Mendez, manager of the Defending Vulnerable Populations Program at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. “What’s happening in detention centers is not a justice system. There’s no attorney representing detainees and there’s not an Article 3 executive judge. These judges are a part of the administration. It’s not like there’s really a justice system. Due process and protections are absent.”
Ms. Mendez said since the housing of detainees is outsourced to private, for profit agencies, there is little oversight.
“It is a system that will produce these kinds of situations,” she said. “And a lack of awareness is part of the reason for the lack of public outcry.”
“A changing of guard (a new administration) is a good opportunity to change. One place would be more oversight. We have rules and inspections of nuclear power plants, but for whatever reason, our leaders have determined that this system doesn’t warrant much oversight,” she said.
(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)
Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, listens to a speaker at a Sept. 15 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records in a complaint filed to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Photo: AP/Wide World Photos
Nurse Dawn Wooten alleges mass hysterectomies performed at Georgia facility: “I had several detained women on numerous occasions that would come to me and say, ‘Ms. Wooten, I had a hysterectomy. Why?’ I had no answers as to why they had those procedures.” Photo: Youtube/Twitter