Lawmakers and human rights activists are calling for an investigation into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a Georgia nurse reported that detainees are subject to substandard medical care and abusive practices.
According to National Public Radio, the same nurse said that immigrant women received “questionable” hysterectomies which may have been forced.
Now, a coalition of Democratic legislators are calling for an in-depth inspection of the whistleblower’s allegations. The group includes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, and Sens. Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal.
Collectively, they have asked the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate the nurse’s claims and report on their veracity.
In total, 168 members of Congress signed a letter urging the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement—to provide a rapid response to the allegations. Legislators have demanded that DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari provide a report by September 25th at the latest.
“If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint—including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women—are a staggering abuse of human rights,” Pelosi said in a statement. “This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments from our nation’s history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought.”
National Public Radio reports that the nurse’s claims center on the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. While the facility houses ICE detainees, it is administered by LaSalle Corrections, a third-party contractor which provides similar services to the federal government in various Southern states.
As LegalReader has reported numerous times before, private prison companies—including the GEO Group, CoreCvic, and LaSalle—have repeatedly been accused of providing detainees with inadequate medical services. Government audits, especially those performed under the Obama administration, have found that third-party facilities are routinely under-staffed and often adhere to unsafe security practices.
The Guardian notes that the whistleblower has since been identified as Dawn Wooten, a nurse who has been practicing for more than 10 years.
Wooten spent three years at Irwin. In her complaint, supported by the Government Accountability Project and Project South, Wooten claimed that detainees at Irwin are routinely punished with solitary confinement for complaining about living conditions or committing petty offenses.
Wooten also said that she herself was demoted and reprimanded for criticizing LaSalle’s treatment of immigrant detainees.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of Wooten’s complaint is the claim that an “alarming” number of hysterectomies—a surgical procedure in which part or all of a woman’s uterus is removed—have been performed on Spanish-speaking women, many of whom appeared not to understand either the implications of such procedures or why they had received them in the first place.
Wooten said that a single off-site doctor frequently recommended that women receive hysterectomies for simply complaining about heavy or irregular menstrual bleeding.
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said. “That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. Everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”
In one instance, Wooten says the doctor’s team “accidentally’ removed the “wrong” ovary from a woman, leaving her infertile. In another case, a woman who wanted a cyst drained was given a hysterectomy instead.
Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney with Project South, said Wooten’s reports substantiates numerous other complaints from and about Irwin.
“For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center,” Bhatt said. “Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years: gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care, and unsanitary living conditions at Irwin.”