“I Just Felt Like I Had No Control Over My Body”: Survivors of Alleged ICE Medical Abuse Speak Out
This video features our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
Dozens of immigrant women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia have joined a class-action lawsuit against ICE over allegations they were subjected to nonconsensual and invasive gynecological procedures and surgeries that were later found to be unnecessary, and in some cases left them unable to have children. The lawsuit cites sworn testimony from at least 35 women about their treatment by Mahendra Amin, a physician in Ocilla, Georgia, and describes retaliation and threats of deportation for speaking out. “We have more than 40 women who filed sworn testimony in court despite consistent attempts by ICE to silence them,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South and co-counsel for women at Irwin who say they were subjected to these procedures. We also speak with two women who say they underwent unnecessary medical procedures: Wendy Dowe, who was deported to Jamaica after she says her fallopian tubes were removed without her consent, and Elizabeth, who is detained at the Irwin County ICE jail and who says she faced retaliation for speaking up about her unnecessary medical treatment.
We turn to an update now on how dozens of immigrant women detained by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at the Irwin County Detention Center have joined a class-action lawsuit against ICE over allegations they were subjected to nonconsensual and invasive gynecological procedures and surgeries, that were later found to be unnecessary and, in some cases, left them unable to have children.
The complaint was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia and cites sworn testimony from at least 35 women about their treatment by Mahendra Amin, a physician in Ocilla, Georgia. The lawsuit also describes how the women suffered retaliation for speaking out and faced threats of deportation.
One of the survivors, who’s still detained at Irwin, joined a call with reporters on Tuesday. This is Elizabeth, who’s 21 years old, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, but has lived in the United States since she was 8 years old, first detained in June after calling 911 to report being physically abused by her boyfriend. Her daughter was 4 months old at the time. She’s now 10 months old and living with Elizabeth’s mother in Florida, as Elizabeth now marks five months in detention. In this clip, she describes part of her experience with Dr. Amin.
ELIZABETH: This doctor, he comes in. He comes in, and he doesn’t even acknowledge me. He just — he just comes in, and he sits right in front of me. My escort was right behind him. He starts prepping for the procedure he’s going to — that’s going to be done, without telling me anything. He’s not explaining what’s going to be done or anything.
Then he just says, “Open up your legs.” And, you know, his demeanor is very intimidating, very just standoffish. So, like, as soon as he says that, I just feel like I have no control over my body anymore. I just — I didn’t know what was going to be done to me.
AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, Elizabeth will join us by phone from the Irwin jail to talk more about her ordeal and what she’s calling for.
And we’ll hear from another woman, who says Dr. Amin pressured her to get a hysterectomy. When she refused, she found he removed her fallopian tubes. She has since been deported.
Also with us, Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, co-counsel for women at Irwin who say they were subjected to these nonconsensual and invasive procedures by Dr. Amin. In September, her organization joined the Government Accountability Project and others to file a complaint about the alleged abuse, based primarily on nurse Dawn Wooten’s testimony. Wooten is a nurse who worked in the jail operated by the LaSalle Corrections corporation, who spoke out about the high number of undocumented women undergoing hysterectomies, a surgery to remove the uterus, without proper consent.
We welcome you back Democracy Now! We thank you so much for being with us. Let’s begin with Azadeh Shahshahani. Can you lay out this broadened lawsuit? We have been following this very closely. But explain who’s included in this, what the allegations are and what has happened to Irwin, the detention center, as well as Dr. Amin.
AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Thank you very much for having me, Amy.
First, I should say that I’m glad that the complaint that we filed in September along with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Georgia Detention Watch and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, and the testimony of our courageous client, Ms. Dawn Wooten, the whistleblowing nurse, has paved the way for more women survivors of medical abuse at Irwin to come forward and tell the world about what they suffered at this facility.
So, this lawsuit, recent lawsuit, that Project South filed along with our partners, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law, David Dreyer and several other law school clinics, is a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of women detained at Irwin who have been subjected to invasive and nonconsensual gynecological procedures — that is, medical abuse. So, in total, we have more than 40 women who filed sworn testimony in court, despite consistent attempts by ICE to silence them.
And the filing also includes evidence showing that ICE and the private contractors at the facility knew as far back as 2018 about the medical abuse being inflicted on women, and yet they didn’t do anything. Instead, they kept sending women to this same doctor, who was not even board-certified.
And the lawsuit also focuses on the issue of retaliation. So, since we filed the complaint in September, instead of cooperating with the investigation, ICE has been actively trying to cover their own tracks and erase the evidence through deporting survivors of medical abuse, survivors and witnesses to medical abuse — so they have already deported six, and they were trying to deport several more, before lawyers and Congress have stepped in to try to stop the deportations — and using other tactics of retaliations against those who speak out, such as threats of placing women in solitary or actually placing them in solitary confinement.
And so, the status is that Irwin is still up and running, despite our demands for several years now to go ahead and shut this place down. And they’re not sending women to Dr. Amin anymore at this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to go right now to Elizabeth, a survivor of alleged medical abuse, speaking to us from inside Irwin. She has a limited amount of time she can speak because she’s calling from inside a jail. Elizabeth, please tell us your story, how you ended up at Irwin, and then how you ended up having a medical procedure done on you.
It sounds like this call has just disconnected, and we’re going to try to get this call back on, be able to speak with Elizabeth, a survivor of alleged medical abuse, from inside the Irwin Detention Center. It is very difficult for these women to get their stories out, but they increasingly are.
We’re going to go right now to Wendy Dowe, who’s testified that while she was detained in Irwin, Dr. Amin told her she had large cysts and pushed her to get a hysterectomy, which she refused, but he still performed a surgery that left her unable to have children. Doctors later told her the procedure was completely unnecessary. She’s originally from Jamaica, lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, has four U.S.-born children. She was deported in May. Wendy, if you can tell us what happened to you?
WENDY DOWE: Thank you for having me. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much.
WENDY DOWE: September of 2018, I went to court for a traffic violation. And after that, they put — I got arrested. They put a ICE hold on me. So I ended up in Irwin County. I was there for a year and six months with stomach pain. I went in there with hypertension, and I had stomach pain, and I have a hernia. So I made a claim to the medical department. And they didn’t do anything until one day they came for me. Didn’t know where I was going. They woke me up 5:00.
And when I went there, it was Dr. Amin. He performed an X-ray and a sonogram on me, and told me that I got multiple cysts in me. So I asked him what that meant. He didn’t answer. So, after the point, he told me that I got a mass in my ovary. I’m like, “What is that?” He says, “It’s a mass that grows in your ovary. We don’t know if it’s cancerous, but it’s a mass.” I went back to the facility. I spoke to the nurses about that. They said they don’t know, because Dr. Amin didn’t send them any type of paperworks as yet.
So, I think it was a couple weeks after that, they woke me up again 5:00 that morning. I went to Dr. Amin again, that told me that I’ve got a size of a cantaloupe in my ovary, that it’s cancerous. By then I was like shaky and crying, and I asked him, you know, “What caused this?” And he said he can’t tell me, because he was hired through ICE and he’s got to send the paperwork back to the facility.
So, when I went back to the facility, I spoke to the nurses, sent multiple papers to them. Multiple papers. They never answer, until — I think this is the cause of the stress, that I couldn’t see out of my eyes. My blood pressure was all the way up, and my vision was lost. And next morning again, they came in the morning, 5:00, told me I’m going to the doctor. I thought it was for what I was going through. When I went to the doctor, they told me I had surgery. But, basically, what I’m going through, I was like out of my mind and wasn’t, you know, concentrating on what they were saying, because I had a headache, couldn’t see out of my eyes or anything. When I woke up —
AMY GOODMAN: So the doctor cut your fallopian tubes?
WENDY DOWE: Yeah. When I woke up, I noticed that I couldn’t wake up at all because I was on anesthesia. When I went back to the facility, I didn’t know as yet. I noticed there were three holes in my stomach. So I was asking them, “What is this?” They say I got surgery, but they don’t know what type of surgery I had. After I request and request and request the medical paper, they brought it back to me. That’s when I know that my fallopian tubes is out.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, how much later were you deported to Jamaica, where we’re speaking to you now in Kingston?
WENDY DOWE: After that, I think it was a couple months after that.
AMY GOODMAN: And your kids still in the United States? They are U.S. citizens.
WENDY DOWE: They were in the United States with a friend. I had an 11-year-old that — she is disabled. I had a 14-year-old at the time. She’s turned 14 now, but she was 12. And I had a 15-year-old. So, they were with a friend at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go, Wendy, back to the facility, the jail. You’re speaking to us from deportation, and you’re demanding you be allowed to come back to this country, where you lived for 20 years. A number of women have had their deportation stopped. But we’re back with Elizabeth inside the facility, and we don’t want to leave her — inside the jail. Elizabeth, if you can describe what happened to you?
ELIZABETH: Yes. I arrived at Irwin County Detention Center in July of 2020. A little after I arrived, I started feeling abdominal pain, so I asked to see a doctor. I went, like she said, multiple times, until they finally made an appointment. When I went to this appointment, I went to see Dr. Amin. When I was there, I was shackled from my ankles, my wrists and on my stomach. I had a chain around my stomach. The nurses took my weight, my temperature and my blood pressure with my ankles shackled.
AMY GOODMAN: Your shackles. You are in for a civil offense. They’re saying you violated your immigration status. You had called the police yourself, because you said you were being abused by your partner. And they arrested you.
ELIZABETH: Yes, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: So now you’re shackled, and you’re brought to this gynecologist.
ELIZABETH: Yes, ma’am. They took my weight and all this. They put me back in a room, where the nurse told me to take off my clothes. So they had to take off my chains in order for me to take off my clothes. And I’m just sitting down on the bed. Dr. Amin comes in. He doesn’t even acknowledge me. He doesn’t say anything. His demeanor is very much, you know, manly and rude, so it’s like he’s unapproachable. Like, I didn’t even say hi to him.
He sits in front of me. He starts putting his gloves on and getting ready for the procedure that is going to be done, which he does not tell me what is going to be done. Then, the officer that is with me, she’s like right in front of me, in the eyesight where she was going to see my body parts. So I told the nurse if she could please move. So, the person that was there, she said she couldn’t leave the room, but she just moved from there.
Then, Dr. Amin, his words, his exact words, were “Open up your legs.” He just told me, “Open up your legs.” So, at that moment, I just felt like I had no control over my body. He just made me feel, you know, like worthless, because I’m like, “Oh wow.” So, I did what he told me to. Then he just said, “It’s going to be cold,” and he stuck the tube inside of me, like just hard. And he was doing a vaginal ultrasound.
As I’m about to turn to the monitor, he [inaudible], and he tells me that I have a cyst on my left ovary, that I’m going to get a Depo shot for it to dissolve. If it doesn’t dissolve in four weeks, I’m going to be scheduled for surgery. At that time, I didn’t know what a Depo shot was. I didn’t know it was birth control. My family has had birth control before, and I’ve been scared of birth control because it made their hormones crazy. They gain a lot of weight, and they just — you know, they get acne on their face and stuff like that. So, if I would have known that it was birth control, I wouldn’t have gotten it. But he just said, “You’re getting a Depo shot,” like he didn’t give me no choice.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the drug Depo-Provera, injected into your arm.
ELIZABETH: Yes. Yes, ma’am. He just leaves the room after that. And I get dressed, and then they shackle me up once again. Then the nurse comes in, and she gives me the Depo shot in my arm, with my handcuffs on, and then she makes me sign the paper, which I didn’t know what the paper was because I couldn’t even hold the paper because I had handcuffs on my arm. So, the way I could, I just grabbed a pen, and I signed the paper.
And on my way back to the detention center, I’m talking to this girl that was also transported in there with me, and she tells me that she also has a cyst in her left ovary, and she got the shot “to not have babies.” Those were her words. And that’s how I knew that the Depo shot was the birth control. And I started asking her questions.
AMY GOODMAN: So —
ELIZABETH: I was like, how was the doctor — mm-hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me, Elizabeth, what you’re calling for now? Sadly, you are in this ICE jail through Christmas. Your daughter is now what? Ten months old. And you haven’t seen her since she was 4 months, is that right?
ELIZABETH: Correct. Yes, that’s right. I have not seen her in six months.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re in a jail where you are exposed to COVID. What are your calls for?
ELIZABETH: I am in a jail, yes, correct.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for?
ELIZABETH: I want — what I want out of this is for this jail to be closed. I want everyone to be freed in here. It is not fair for us to be in here when we have our kids, our family members out there. I want immigration, if it’s possible, to be shut down. I don’t want any more women to go through what I went through.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is just an astounding story, how many women are telling your story. Wendy, you’re deported as Elizabeth is inside the jail. You were held there until you were sent back, having been sterilized by the same doctor. Wendy Dowe, what are you calling for?
WENDY DOWE: I’m calling for the shutdown of Irwin County. I’m calling for changes. People with like minor offense, people that’s been in the country for decades, people that don’t know, you know, like your country — even though you’re born there, you don’t know the country — people don’t go through the same thing like we went through, because I’ve got four U.S. citizen children, and my children went through hell. I’m in Jamaica now. They can’t get the doctor help they need. Financially, I can’t support them, where my daughter got Medicaid in America. She got Medicaid because she’s a disabled child. They can’t get the education they needed here, because they are not from here. I already got an American citizen that died in Jamaica because of the healthcare, and I don’t want the same thing to happen to my children.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go, finally, back to Azadeh Shahshahani and what — we only have 30 seconds. But do you see it being feasible, since congressmembers have taken up this issue, as well, to shut down this ICE facility, this ICE jail, where women are being sterilized against their will, having medical procedures they don’t realize? What can be done at this point?
AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: At this point we’re looking to the Biden administration, and the demand is to go ahead and immediately shut this place down. And we’re asking Congress to put pressure on ICE to shut down Irwin, to hold ICE and the private prison contractors, including the prison corporation LaSalle, accountable for women who suffered abuse, and for the witnesses to be able to come back and testify about what happened. And we need a broader investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to leave it there, but we’ll continue to investigate, Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South, Wendy Dowe in Jamaica, Elizabeth, survivor inside Irwin now. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.