Several people, including a nurse, expressed alarm at the number of hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Ocilla, Georgia, according to a new whistleblower complaint sent to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.
Multiple legal advocacy groups filed the complaint, dated Monday, on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse with a decade of experience.
The complaint alleges that officials have fostered unsanitary conditions and allowed for “jarring medical neglect” at the Irwin County Detention Center, which is operated by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections. In addition to the allegedly high number of hysterectomies performed on female detainees, the center is accused of failing to take basic steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Wooten said in a press conference Tuesday that she had to speak out publicly after witnessing the “inhumane” treatment of immigrants.
ICE told HuffPost that it “does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
The agency continued: “ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results. That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
HuffPost did not immediately receive a response from LaSalle Corrections.
According to the nurse, female detainees are regularly sent to an off-site doctor who sometimes ends up removing all or part of their uteruses. Due to language barriers, many of the women may not be able to properly consent to the procedure. Some nurses end up “simply googling Spanish” to obtain patient consent, she alleged.
“That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector,” Wooten said of the doctor, who is not named in the public version of the complaint.
“I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going,” she said.
Although the women are told that they have severe menstruation issues requiring the procedure, Wooten doubts that is really the case, saying, “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy ― just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady [detained immigrant woman],” Wooten said in the complaint. The patient was supposed to have her left ovary removed due to a cyst, but the doctor allegedly took out her right ovary.
“She was upset,” Wooten said. “She had to go back to take out the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy. She still wanted children ― so she has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can’t bear kids.”
Wooten’s statements were bolstered by other, anonymous accounts given to Project South, a human rights group that helped file the complaint.
“Several immigrant women have reported to Project South their concerns about how many women have received a hysterectomy while detained at ICDC,” the complaint read.
For attempting to voice her concerns about ICDC ― including that rooms and equipment were not properly cleaned and that medical records were being fabricated ― Wooten says in the complaint that she was demoted and issued a reprimand.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, employees have struggled to obtain sufficient personal protective equipment, according to the complaint, which notes that social distancing is not observed at the facility. Employees are also allegedly made to work even while presenting symptoms of COVID-19.
Wooten says she was personally written up for not reporting to work while experiencing symptoms and that she was not permitted to tell her co-workers which detainees had tested positive.
“Interviews with another current member of Irwin’s medical staff ― who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation ― and four people currently or recently detained there” have backed up Wooten’s accusations, according to a report by The Intercept. The outlet did not mention the allegedly excessive hysterectomies.
America’s prisons and jails have faced harsh criticism for allowing coronavirus infection and death rates to spike in the cramped facilities.
“Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures reveal not only gross mismanagement from LaSalle leadership, but actions that deliberately put the health of detainees, workers, and the public at risk,” said attorney John Whitty of the Government Accountability Project, which also helped file the complaint.
“It is up to DHS to heed the warnings of employee whistleblowers like Ms. Wooten and take action to enforce protective measures against the rampant spread of COVID-19.”