Questionable hysterectomies and shoddy COVID care alleged at Georgia immigrant detention center

Ocilla, Georgia — An immigration detention center in Georgia performed questionable hysterectomies, refused to test detainees for COVID-19 and shredded medical records, according to a nurse quoted in a complaint filed Monday. 

The complaint to the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog relies on accounts of Dawn Wooten, who worked full-time as a licensed practical nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, when she was demoted to work as needed.

Wooten calls a gynecologist who works outside the facility “the uterus collector.”

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy – just about everybody,” Wooten said. “He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady.”

It was unclear to Wooten if women knowingly consented to the operations. Nurses raised concerns about the doctor, who is unnamed.

“These immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them,” she is quoted saying.

The facility in Ocilla, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, houses men and women detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service and Irwin County.

ICE said it does not comment on matters before the inspector general but that it takes all allegations seriously.

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

Dr. Ada Rivera, the top doctor at the agency, issued a statement saying the whistleblower accusations will be investigated by an independent office, adding, “However, ICE vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”

“All female ICE detainees receive routine, age-appropriate gynecological and obstetrical health care, consistent with recognized community guidelines for women’s health services,” Rivera said. Her statement also said that, according to ICE data, two detainees at Irwin County Detention Center have had hysterectomies since 2018.

According to the statement, both individuals were “referred to certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities for hysterectomies in compliance with National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) standards. Based on their evaluations, these specialists recommended hysterectomies. These recommendations were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved.”

“To be clear, medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not by law enforcement personnel,” Rivera added. “Detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will.”

LaSalle Corrections, which owns and operates Irwin County Detention Center under contract, did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday.

While the 27-page complaint filed by the Government Accountability Project and advocacy group Project South quotes unidentified detainees extensively, it also includes detailed comments from Wooten. The complaint says Wooten was demoted after missing work with coronavirus symptoms, which she believes was retaliation for raising questions about addressing COVID-19.

Wooten said the number of detainees infected was much higher than reported because there was no active testing and not all cases were reported, according to the complaint.

Wooten is quoted as saying the sick call nurse sometimes fabricated seeing detainees in person when they hadn’t and that she saw the nurse shred a box of detainee complaints without looking at them. She said nurses ignored detainees reporting COVID-19 symptoms.

If detainees reported a fever, nurses would put them on an over-the-counter cold medication for seven days without testing them for COVID-19, she said.

Wooten said the facility declined to use two rapid-testing COVID-19 machines that ICE purchased for $14,000 each. No medical staff had been trained on them and she saw the machines used only once.

Government Accountability Project staff attorney John Whitty said, “Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures reveal not only gross mismanagement from LaSalle leadership, but actions that deliberately put the health of detainees, workers, and the public at risk. It is up to DHS to heed the warnings of employee whistleblowers like Ms. Wooten and take action to enforce protective measures against the rampant spread of COVID-19.”

Project South Staff Attorney Priyanka Bhatt remarked that, “For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center. 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.

“We call on DHS to conduct an investigation into the Irwin County Detention Center in order to protect the health and safety of the detained immigrants and the workers there.”

As of Sunday, 42 detainees at the facility had tested positive for the virus, according to ICE. Nationwide, 5,772 detainees were positive.