Whistleblower’s Allegations Underscore Mistreatment of Immigrant Women

This article was originally published in The Final Call

By Barrington M. Salmon

Contributing Writer

Dawn Wooten’s allegations about the unsanctioned sterilization of immigrant women being held at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, has kicked up a hornet’s nest of outrage and at least one Congressional investigation.

Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, listens to a speaker at a Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records in a complaint filed to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Ms. Wooten is a nurse who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, filed a 27-page whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General of the US Department of Homeland Security earlier this month. She alleges that staff allowed unsanitary and unhygienic conditions, ignored the threat posed by COVID-19, leaving detainees unprotected, denied them coronavirus tests, shredded records and also performed questionable hysterectomies.

In her complaint and in several press conferences, Ms. Wooten fleshed out elements of her allegations.

Dawn Wooten

Staff at Project South say Ms. Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, told them that the rate at which the hysterectomies have occurred was a red flag for her and other nurses at the detention center. 

“We’ve questioned among ourselves, like goodness, he’s taking everybody’s stuff out … That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector,” Ms. Wooten said. “I know that’s ugly. He’s collecting these things or something … everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world.” 

Ms. Wooten provided a detailed account of the center’s forced sterilization to Project South, a Georgia-based nonprofit which works to eliminate poverty and genocide, and to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. Both institutes issued a formal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security, calling for an investigation into the center’s health care practices. Other non-profits on the ground who are working on this case include the Georgia Detention Watch, and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights have partnered to expose the abuses and are fighting against these injustices and inhumane practices in the ICE facility and elsewhere.

John Whitty, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project (GAP) said GAP is also working with Ms. Wooten to protect her, give her whistleblower status. GAP – whose website describes the organization as the international leader in whistleblower protection, from advocacy to litigation, and Project South, sent a letter to Congress on September 17 outlining to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General sharing Ms. Wooten’s allegations of what both organizations say are egregious health practices at the Irwin County Detention Center. 

Mr. Whitty said Wooten was demoted in July from a full-time nurse to “as-needed.” In the complaint she said she believes the demotion was in retaliation for raising coronavirus protocol concerns. He praised Ms. Wooten for stepping forward, saying that GAP greatly values her courage to blow the whistle because without her testimony these grievances would continue indefinitely. 

“Our main concern it to make sure that all immigrants get adequate medical care and that they are treated humanely,” he told The Final Call. “The importance of courageous people coming forward in these types of circumstances and in the face of formidable retaliation makes it so important to protect them when they come forward. We owe them a debt of gratitude. I encourage Congress, the inspector general and the state legislature to move quickly to investigate these allegations.”

In a statement released to the media, Mr. Whitty also said: “We ask Congress to recognize this failure on the part of ICE detention to adequately care for its detainees and employees and to act so that these violations do not continue to threaten the health of those within ICE detention.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South’s Legal and Advocacy Director and counsel for Ms. Wooten, reiterated Mr. Whitty’s comments.

“We have documented conditions at Irwin for many years. The treatment of immigrants at this prison has always been horrid,” she said in the media statement. “These new shocking revelations further highlight the extent of the egregious abuses at the facility. The fact that Black and brown immigrant women are held in an extremely vulnerable position at this prison where they have no control over their bodies and no say about what it is done to them is sickening. Irwin should be shut down immediately and people should be freed. The United States Government as well as the private prison corporation running this prison should be held accountable.”

Ms. Wooten reported cases of inadequate medical care, destruction of records and a complete disregard for the proper procedures around COVID-19. 

The facility is run by LaSalle Corrections. In a statement made available to media, a spokesperson said: “LaSalle Corrections has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of inappropriate behavior in our facilities and takes all allegations of such mistreatment seriously. Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC.”

A Final Call reporter left a message seeking comment but at press time the newspaper has not received a response from Scott Grubman, the attorney representing the doctor implicated in several of the cases. But in a statement released to the media, Mr. Grubman said, “We are aware of the whistleblower’s allegations as they relate to Dr. (Mahendra) Amin, and vehemently deny them. Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia.”

“We look forward to all of the facts coming out and are confident that, once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”

Jamille Fields Allsbrook said reports coming out the detention center are “incredibly disturbing, especially for those of us who do this work.”

“I’m surprised and not. If the allegations are true, they must be investigated and people held accountable,” continued Ms. Allsbrook, the director of Women’s Health and Rights at the Center for American Progress, considering America’s history of reproductive coercion and what ICE has done.”

“There are allegations of unsafe practices around COVID, from what we know in the complaints and what’s publicly reported. And Dawn Wooten has alleged that women received hysterectomies and that the staff lied to them. One woman claimed that she was going in for excessive bleeding, anotherwas said to have cysts on her ovaries. They didn’t understand. If it happened to one or 20, it’s unconscionable.”

Ms. Allsbrook said she doesn’t think “we’re where we need to be,” on issues of this nature, and a great deal more needs to be done for America to live up to the ideals its professes and treat those trying to come in the country as human beings. 

“There has been a history of gynecology being done on Black women without anesthesia and they sterilized inmates. We’ve also seen it come through in other ways,” she said. “Recently, ICE has tried or been trying to deny couple women’s abortions. And they still shackle pregnant women in prisons and jails so this is not shocking.”

“Is this racism or misogyny? It’s a pure combination of racism and sexism to create a situation and then it goes unchecked, is not cared about. Those most affected are low-income people, people on Medicaid, predominantly Black and Latina women – it’s about controlling Black and brown bodies.”

Dr. Shantella Sherman, an award-winning historian, journalistand publisher of Acumen magazine, said the United States has a long and sordid history of sterilizing women and men, particularly Black, brown and Native Americans. She has spent considerable time researching eugenics and government-sanctioned efforts to sterilize people seen as a burden on society, the mentally ill, the poor, the disabled and others who fell out of the desired category of whiteness – African Americans, Native Americans and other non-white people.

“I would say that in eugenics terms there will always be a disproportionate number today of Black, Hispanic and Native American women who will be affected by forced sterilized in institutions based on the fact that they are detained at higher numbers,” said Dr. Sherman, whose work focuses on genetics, eugenics and racial identity. “White women in prison, any woman is subject to sterilization. The belief is that criminality is in the DNA. The belief is that their children out there in societyare a burden to the city and state. These children have no grounding if their mother is in jail. These children are more likely to have learning problems, cognitive difficulties, developmental issues.” 

While she has not reason to doubt Ms. Wooten’s allegations, Dr. Sherman said that because of the nature of the work and research she’s involved in, she has a number of questions, that if answered, would help to ground the case more firmly.

She said she would like to know more about the company which runs and operates the ICE facility; what hospital(s) are detention staff using; what number of women have been affected; where are the records that would have to be filled out to do these procedures?

“Information is not provided in a vacuum. The information we’ve gotten is very vague. We haven’t gotten numbers or the percentage it represents,” Dr. Sherman explained. “How many were white or not? What’s the number the whistle blower is saying had hysterectomies?”

“Records will make this case far more grounded. Was the whistleblower able to identify people? Do they have families?There are a lot of things that are not answered so I’m not ready to run in and say it was the same thing as in Crownsville and other institutions. We have to really pay attention to the information. I’m not sure what to believe and how far to carry it. We have to be very, very careful about this.”

Dr. Sherman, immigrant activists and advocates and others castigated the government for allowing inappropriate, inhumaneand possibly criminal conditions to continue to persist in the care of immigrants and detainees.

Michelle Brane, senior director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission told The Final Call this particular case has hit a nerve.

“Congressional representatives are asking for an investigation,” she said. “At the very least, we have to keep the pressure on, hold someone accountable. We will continue to follow up and alert the public. The biggest thing for me is that sadly, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Conditions are inappropriate and inhumane, the government is separating children from their families, detainees are living in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. There are patterns and practices of inadequate healthcare and a disregard for human life.”

“The allegations we hear are shocking, but they come against the history of sterilization in this country. We don’t know yet how pervasive this is and if it is limited to this facility … It is not a question that this does not fit in what we professionals see. We’re seeing migrants and immigrant detained, and them sending back asylum seekers, returning them to dangerous situations. This differs from public opinion which says Americans want passage and protection for refugees and for the US to be a refuge.”

Mr. Whitty said a congressional delegation visited the Georgia facility this past weekend. There has already been a hearing on the issue and recently, according to published reports, 173 members of Congress urged the DHS OIG to open a separate investigation into the allegations and report back to them by September 25.

“The reports of mass hysterectomies cause grave concern for the violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights detained people,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter. “Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, their language, or their incarceration deserve to control their own reproductive choices, and make informed choices about their bodies.”

ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams said in recent statement that the agency does not comment on complaints like Wooten’s that are filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) but she responded forcefully to the allegations.

“That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve,” she said.

And Scott Sutterfield, a spokesperson for LaSalle, also pushed back against Ms. Wooten’s allegations and “any implications of misconduct” in a statement where he accused her and the organizations that filed the complaint of pushing “long-held political objectives.”

Critics say that even though Ms. Wooten’s complaint filed Monday concerns a single detention center, it reflects a broader pattern of abuses that routinely occur in immigration detention, especially those operated by private prison companies. ICE officials and the Irwin County, Georgia hospital where female detainees are sent, have released records indicating that two hysterectomies have been performed on women at the facility in the past three years. But interviews by attorneys and firsthand accounts of women who have come forward show that women were subjected to other invasive gynecological procedures that they did not give their consent to, fully understand and may not have been medically unnecessary.

“In just a matter of time we’ll learn extent of it. We will see what they’re doing to men too,” said Michelle Mendez, manager of the Defending Vulnerable Populations Program at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc (CLINIC). “What’s happening in detention centers is not a justice system. There’sno attorney representing detained and there’s not an Article 3 judge. These judges are a part of the administration. It’s not like there’s really a justice system. Due process and protections are absent. The judge are part of Article 2 so it’s very political. If they had right to atty, they could speak out.”

Ms. Mendez said because the housing of detainees is outsourced to private, for profit agencies, there is little oversight. 

“It is a system that will produce these kinds of situations,” she said. “And a lack of awareness is part of reason for lack of public outcry. We can go to federal court, try to keep the government accountable but the work of whistleblowers and journalism is very important. I am concerned for sure about the politicization of the judiciary but we have faith that when it comes to the lack of dignity offered to any decent human being, a reasonable person will side with human dignity.”

“A changing of guard (a new administration) is a good opportunity to change. One place would be more oversight. We have rules and inspections of nuclear power plants, but for whatever reason, our leaders have determined that this systemdoesn’t warrant much oversight. If guards don’t have inspectors, there is no transparency. I hope the next administration will create new changes and not rely on tension. There’s no reason that these conditions should be allowed to persist. When we start losing sight of the human dignity of immigrants is when we begin to excuse how they’re treated.”

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