Whistleblower: Forced Hysterectomies, COVID Spread at ICE Detention Center

Aaron Gould Sheinin and Troy Brown, RN

September 15, 2020

A private prison company is accused in a whistleblower complaint of failing to protect detainees and employees at a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center from the coronavirus and performed forced hysterectomies on female detainees. 

A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security inspector general says Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections did not provide personal protective equipment to staff and did not accurately report the number of COVID-19 cases at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, GA. 

The complaint is largely based on information from whistleblower Dawn Wooten, LPN, who worked at the center. A group of watchdog organizations, including Project South and Georgia Detention Watch, filed the complaint on Monday. 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that LaSalle officials did not respond to requests for comments. The paper says ICE released a statement saying only that it is "firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody."

ICE told CBS News that, "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.

The groups claim that LaSalle did not test detained immigrants for COVID even when they were exposed to the virus and showing symptoms, and that the company destroyed detainee medical records and fabricated other records. One detainee reported not receiving breast cancer medication for weeks. 

Detained immigrants, the complaint says, "have reported not being able to see a medical professional for several weeks despite submitting multiple sick call requests, not receiving life-dependent medication consistently and not receiving proper medical care once they are able to see a medical professional."

Questionable Hysterectomies, Other Medical Procedures

Beyond concerns about the coronavirus, one doctor in particular associated with the facility performed an alarming number of hysterectomies on female detainees, Wooten says in the complaint. 

"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 says in the complaint. The name of the doctor was not included in 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 says. 

They've known about issues related to women's healthcare for years, Priyanka Bhatt, staff attorney, Project South, said during a news briefing in front of the ICE office in Atlanta, Georgia today. When her organization first reported on these issues in 2017, a primary concern was a lack of prenatal care for pregnant women.

"Over the years our coalition has heard from several women who have either had a hysterectomy done or have talked to other immigrants who have had a hysterectomy. Our complaint specifically talks about one detained immigrant who was horrified when she talked to five different immigrant women in the span of only a few months who had each said they had a hysterectomy done and were not able to fully disclose why they had the procedure done," Bhatt explained.

Concerns About Detention Center Became Personal for Whistleblower

Speaking about her decision to become a whistleblower, Wooten said in the news briefing that in addition to the questionable medical procedures detained women were undergoing, the realization that proper precautions were not being taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission and her own history of sickle cell disease were especially concerning to her as a single mother of five.

She said she was given an N95 mask in March and when she requested a new one in May after a strap broke, she was denied one even though her facility had them in supply.

Other things bothered her as well.

"I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive. We have families; we have lives. They have families; they have lives," But the last straw was when she became directly affected by the situation in ICDC. 

Wooten has sickle cell disease and would likely become extremely ill if she develops COVID-19; therefore, when she developed symptoms she was told by her physician to stay at home while awaiting test results. Her employer ultimately demoted her from full-time to "as-needed" status as a result of her absence from work.

"We hope that filing this complaint will illustrate the dire need to investigate and close this facility," Bhatt said in the news briefing.


CBS News, "Questionable hysterectomies and shoddy COVID care alleged at Georgia immigrant detention center"

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Whistleblower blasts Georgia immigration detention center's COVID-19 response"

Project South: "Lack of Medical Care, Unsafe Work Practices, and Absence of Adequate Protection Against COVID-19 for Detained Immigrants and Employees Alike at the Irwin County Detention Center"


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