For years, advocates in Georgia have been raising issues about poor conditions and human rights violations at an immigration detention center in the city, and now a nurse who worked at the same detention center is making similar allegations.
The nurse, Dawn Wooten, who worked at the Irwin county detention center in Georgia run by private corporation LaSalle Corrections for three years, has filed a whistleblower complaint alleging lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions and poor safety precautions surrounding Covid-19.
The complaint, filed on her behalf on September 14 by the human rights legal groups the Government Accountability Project and Project South, also accused the center of performing questionable hysterectomies – the surgical removal of the uterus – on immigrant women detained at the facility.
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Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, said in an interview with the Intercept that she was demoted and reprimanded when she started asking questions about these practices. The Intercept reported that Wooten’s account was “bolstered by interviews with another current member of Irwin’s medical staff – who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation – and four people currently or recently detained there”.
The complaint filed by Wooten said the hysterectomies were largely performed by an off-site doctor, whom she called “the uterus collector,” on Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly after they had complained of heavy menstrual cycles. However, many of the women did not understand why the procedure was being performed. “Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out.”
A detained immigrant told Project South that five women she spoke with at the facility who received hysterectomies between October and December 2019 “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.”
“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,” the woman told Project South. “It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”
In the wake of the coronavirus, conditions at the center “have only worsened”, according to the complaint. Immigrants are not being tested for Covid-19, medical records are being fabricated, employees are being allowed to work while symptomatic and awaiting Covid-19 test results, number of Covid-19 positive tests being concealed, among other conditions that have facilitated the spread of Covid-19, the complaint said.
“We are calling for people to be freed immediately, and we have been calling for this facility to be shut down for a long time,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a human rights attorney at Project South.
Irwin county detention center, which houses about 1,200 people, is yet to comment on the allegations. The ICE told NPR in a statement it “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures,” adding that it “does not comment prematurely on the allegations out of respect for the process of matters pending before the inspector general.”
On Wednesday, a group of legislators called on the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate the claims. “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,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“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.”