Complaints allege neglect, sterilization at Georgia migrant facility

Grant Boone
September 16, 2020

A whistleblower complaint directed toward the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleges that detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Georgia were medically neglected, including not being tested for COVID-19, and that an alarmingly large number of hysterectomies were being performed on detainees.

The activist groups Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network have filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) against Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) on behalf of a nurse who used to work there, Dawn Wooten.

A woman reported that 100 women slept in a unit where women "coughed, had fever and other discomforts, but officers did not listen to them when they reported their health problems", and that they were never tested for Covid-19, according to the complaint.

Sarah Owings, a Georgia-based immigration attorney, told Reuters she and other advocates were collecting information about hysterectomies performed on detainees, and had put out a call to attorneys to review their files.

One detainee, interviewed by Project South, likened the centre to "an experimental concentration camp", adding: "It was like they're experimenting with our bodies".

Wooten explained that though some women may need a hysterectomy to correct heavy menstruation or other severe issues, "everybody's uterus can not be that bad". "She was upset", Wooten says in the complaint. "Everybody's uterus can not be that bad". "That's his specialty, he's the uterus collector", Wooten said. "What in the world".

Wooten told Reuters on Monday that women who complained of heavy periods or asked for birth control would be sent to outside gynecologists and sometimes receive hysterectomies but that many did not fully understand what medical procedures were being ordered. "She still wanted children-so she has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can't bear kids... she said she was not all the way out under anesthesia and heard [the doctor] tell the nurse that he took the wrong ovary". In some cases, there was a language barrier in obtaining consent, too, with nurses at the facility using Google Translate to communicate with immigrant women whose primary language was Spanish.

As for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the complaint issued to the DHS OIG claimed "medical neglect" had occurred, with detained immigrants being denied COVID-19 testing at the ICDC, which Dzubrow highlighted is a for-profit facility.

Wooten worked full-time as a licensed practical nurse at the immigration jail until July, when she was demoted. She alleged that the reduction in hours was retaliation for speaking out.

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"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".

In the complaint, Azadeh Shahshahani, an attorney with Project South, called for an immediate investigation into the allegations of abuse.

Detainees at the Irwin facility who have staged hunger strikes and protests over fears surrounding the coronavirus have been met with punishment from guards, according to The New York Times. More than 15 employees were also infected, Wooten said, including health services administrator Marian Cole, who died in May.

Wooten claimed she was eventually fired from the facility for raising concerns about COVID-19.

LaSalle CEO Rodney Cooper said in a letter to Congress that the company was "diligent in operating our facilities at the highest level".

ICE said it does not comment on matters before the inspector general but that it takes all allegations seriously.

"That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve", the agency said in a statement.

Azadeh Shahshahani, a human rights attorney at Project South, told The Guardian that the groups also plan to file the complaints to the United Nations, describing the alleged treatment as "gross human rights violations" for which "the us government should be held accountable".

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