Whistleblower Claims Women Were Forced Into Hysterectomies At ICE Detention Center
This article features Government Accountability Project and our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
Lawmakers are demanding action from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general after a nurse who worked at a Georgia immigration detention center filed a whistleblower complaint alleging abusive medical practices at the facility. The nurse has alleged the facility refused to test detainees who were exposed to or showed symptoms of COVID-19 as well as coerced immigrant women into hysterectomies.
On Monday, Dawn Wooten, who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, filed the whistleblower complaint, outlining “recent accounts of jarring medical neglect,” at the center. Whistleblower protection organization the Government Accountability Project and advocacy group Project South, who are representing Wooten, filed the complaint with the DHS Office of Inspector General on her behalf as well as the behalf of immigrants detained at the facility.
On Tuesday, a group of more than 160 members of Congress sent a letter backing Wooten and advocacy groups’ urges for DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to investigate the allegations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on Tuesday that if the allegations in the complaint are true, they are “a staggering abuse of human rights.”
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) also said in a Tuesday statement that Wooten’s “courageous choice to speak is honorable,” and that “these horrors must not remain hidden.”
“The American people need to know exactly why and under what conditions that vulnerable women in ICE custody underwent hysterectomies,” Castro continued. “Were Trump administration officials aware of any coerced procedures, and if so, what actions did they take, if any, to stop this abuse?”
During a Wednesday press conference, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dodged a question about the whistleblower complaint.
What does Wooten’s complaint allege?
In the complaint, Wooten said she faced “retaliatory reprimand and demotion in July” from a “full-time” nurse to an “as-needed” nurse after she missed work while waiting for COVID-19 test results. She said she believed she was disciplined “because she has been asking hard questions about testing detained immigrants for COVID-19 and warning officers when detained immigrants they are in contact with have tested positive for COVID-19.”
She also alleged that some of the medical staff at the facility, operated by private prison company LaSalle Corrections, refused to test detainees for COVID-19, shredded submitted medical requests, and underreported COVID-19 cases. Wooten claimed that staff yelled at detainees who reported being in pain and facilitated the transfer of detained immigrants, including some who had tested positive for the virus.
According to ICE’s detainee statistics, close to 6,000 detainees have tested positive for the virus and 6 have died.
The complaint also said that several immigrant women came to Project South with concern for women undergoing hysterectomies while detained at the facility. One woman said many women were sent to see a particular gynecologist outside the facility whom some of the women do not trust.
“More recently, a detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done. When she talked to them about the surgery, the women ‘reacted confused when explaining why they had one done,’” the complaint said. “She further said: ‘When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.’”
Wooten also expressed concern, saying that while some women had issues that would require hysterectomy, “Everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said. “He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady [detained immigrant woman].”
In a statement to NPR, ICE said it, “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”
ICE also previously told the Associated Press 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 continued.