A whistleblower complaint directed toward the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleges that detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Georgia were medically neglected, including not being tested for COVID-19, and that an alarmingly large number of hysterectomies were being performed on detainees.
The complaint, filed with the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for DHS, states that the hysterectomies were performed on several immigrants held within the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). It was brought forward by a number of organizations, including Project South, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Georgia Detention Watch and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.
The hysterectomies in question — medical operations in which a part or the whole uterus is removed from a patient’s body — were performed at a suspiciously high frequency, detainees at the facility confirmed. Moreover, many of those who had undergone the procedure had difficulty explaining why it had been done.
“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,” the complaint states. “When she talked to them about the surgery, the women ‘reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.’ The woman told Project South that it was as though the women were ‘trying to tell themselves it’s going to be OK.’”
The detainee who spoke to those women and shared the information with Project South compared the experience of the surgeries as akin to being in “an experimental concentration camp.”
“It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies,” that individual added.
Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower formally named in the complaint and a nurse who worked at ICDC, confirmed details of the detainee’s account, noting that the patients who had hysterectomies performed were not always made aware of a clear reason why. In some cases, there was a language barrier in obtaining consent, too, with nurses at the facility using Google Translate to communicate with immigrant women whose primary language was Spanish. (Google has stated in other matters that federal agencies should not rely on their translation services.)
One detainee Wooten mentioned in the complaint was given at least three separate and unrelated reasons for why she needed a hysterectomy. When she countered one of the reasons given by noting that the justification of reducing her menstrual bleeding didn’t fit with her medical history, a nurse “responded by getting angry and agitated, and began yelling at her,” the complaint states.
Wooten further alleges in the complaint that ICDC used the same gynecologist from outside the facility on a number of occasions to perform the procedures. She added that this doctor almost always chose to perform hysterectomies on the patients he saw.
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody.… Everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad,” Wooten is quoted as stating in the complaint, describing this doctor as the “uterus collector.”
“Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out, or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world,” Wooten added.
In another account that Wooten recalled, a woman was told she needed one of her ovaries removed due to a cyst. The doctor in question removed the wrong ovary, however, which resulted in him later having to perform a total hysterectomy.
The woman was not “all the way out under anesthesia” during the first procedure, Wooten said, and actually heard the doctor announce to the nurse in the room that he had removed the wrong ovary.
“She still wanted children — so she has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can’t bear kids,” Wooten said.
Beyond the allegations related to hysterectomies, the complaint further states that detainees were treated poorly in other ways, including not receiving medical attention when experiencing pain, having life-saving medication withheld from them, and ICDC not conducting enough COVID-19 testing.
ICE responded to the allegations on Monday evening, suggesting in a statement that charges from anonymous patients cited in the complaint “should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
But a number of critics spoke out after the allegations were made public, calling for formal investigations of ICDC and ICE, with some remarking it was further evidence that ICE deserved to be abolished.
“Today’s immigration news should be a rough reminder, to those who still need it, that we need to abolish ICE,” Jonathan Jayes-Green, vice president of programs at Marguerite Casey Foundation, said regarding the situation. “This amoral, cruel and rotten system cannot be reformed.”
“Ms. Wooten’s account of the treatment of people in ICE custody is horrifying,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network. “People’s lives are at risk in immigration detention, and ICE has continued to prove through its record of medical neglect that no one is safe in its custody.”
Jenn M. Jackson, a professor of race, politics and gender at Syracuse University, noted that the forced hysterectomies were a continuation of a disturbing chapter in U.S. history.
“Forced sterilization has been enacted throughout history on Indigenous, Black, and Brown folx because they were determined unfit for reproduction by the State,” Jackson wrote in a tweet.
Nelini Stamp, national organizing director at the Working Families Party, also commented on the allegations, pointing out that forced sterilization is a common manifestation of white supremacy. Stamp noted that coercive hysterectomies are performed in prisons throughout the U.S., and were used to sterilize vast numbers of Puerto Ricans over the course of decades.
Members of Congress also chimed in on the matter.
“Forced sterilization is a cruel tool of white supremacy with a long, abominable history in this country,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) tweeted out. “We need a Congressional investigation into these heinous human rights abuses immediately.”