A nurse at a privately-owned immigration detention facility in Georgia submitted a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security on Sep. 14. In the report, the licensed practical nurse, Dawn Wooton, alleged medical neglect and questioned the high rate of hysterectomies at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility. Many organizations who advocate for immigrants signed the complaint in solidarity – Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.
In an interview with MSNBC, Wooten stated, “I had several detained women on numerous occasions that would come to me and say: ‘Ms. Wooten, I had a hysterectomy. Um, Why?’ I had no answers as to why they had those procedures.” In the complaint, Wooton spoke about a specific doctor, who remains unidentified, saying, “Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy – just about everybody.” Wooton believes that the immigrant women who allegedly received these procedures do not “all the way understand this is what’s going to happen, depending on who explains it to them.”
The report did not disclose a specific number of women this allegedly happened to, or when these hysterectomies occurred. Agency data reports that since 2018, specialists only referred two women to gynecologists for hysterectomies. Specialists did evaluations before the hysterectomy recommendation; the Irwin County Detention Center reviewed and approved these evaluations.
In a statement, ICE said that it “takes all allegations seriously and refers to the Office of the Inspector General regarding any potential investigation and/or results.” However, the agency explained, “in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
Co-founder and co-chair of South Georgia Immigrant Support Network Leeann Culbreath spoke about conversations she has had with detained immigrant women over the years, in which the women expressed concerns about gynecologic care. “With alarming frequency we hear about women who’ve received gynecological procedures, sometimes they were not given an opportunity to give consent for that,” Culbreath reflected.
Ultimately, concerns that the Irwin County Detention Center mishandled COVID-19 patients motivated Wooton to come forward because the detained immigrants were in potentially fatal danger. Wooton questioned “why the detainees [were] not tested – symptomatic or non-symptomatic, but… the last straw was looking in and living it for yourself. Coming to work and being told that even though you’re being tested, you can report when CDC guidelines say to stay home.” Wooton allegedly tried to prevent transfers of detainees in and out of the facility due to the risk of COVID-19 spread by talking to the facility’s warden, but claims she was met with resistance. The Irwin County Detention Center’s most recent report states that 43 detainees in the center carry the virus.
In response, an agency spokesman stated that “ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”
In July, Wooten faced “retaliatory reprimand and demotion” after missing work because she was awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. The demotion moved Wooten from full-time staff to “as needed,” but Wooton believes that this demotion occurred because she asked “hard questions about testing detained immigrants for COVID-19 and warning officers when detained immigrants they [were] in contact with have tested positive.”
Following Wooton’s complaint, many prominent Democratic politicians have demanded a more in-depth investigation, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senator Cory Booker, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, and Richard Blumenthal. Pelosi elaborated, “If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint… are a staggering abuse of human rights.”
These allegations follow a dark history of forced sterilizations in America. In 1907, Indiana passed the world’s first eugenics sterilization law. Soon after, 31 other states followed Indiana, leading to the sterilization of almost 60,000 people. The majority of these people were Indigenous, Mexican, and Black women. These procedures qualify as involuntary today. Those who approved these procedures justified them through racism and their belief that those sterilized were less advanced, and, therefore, should not be able to reproduce. The Nazis used these laws as a model for the ones they implemented during their regime.
Pelosi expanded on the subject, explaining, “This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of 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.”
(Sources: CNN, NBC, BBC, NPR, NY Times)