Allegations Against ICE
By Manroop Bains
Dawn Wooten, the nurse who filed the whistleblower claim(far left) and others are standing outside of Irwin County Detention Center protesting
Recently, a federal investigation has been called after a nurse at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint concerning a lack of medical care and unsafe practices that may contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The nurse, Dawn Wooten, had mentioned that some immigrant women had received “questionable hysterectomies.”
A group of legislators consisting of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, Richard Blumenthal, and others have urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to look into the claims of mass-unauthorized hysterectomies. According to Pelosi, “If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint-including the allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women are a staggering abuse of human rights.”
Wooten, who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia (a facility that houses ICE detainees) up until July, had filed a whistleblower complaint that had “recent accounts of jarring medical neglect at the ICDC.” Wooten was represented by an organization called the Government Accountability Project, which protects whistleblowers, and the social advocacy group Project South. They filed a complaint on the behalf of Wooten and the detainees at the DHS Office of Inspector General. Some of the allegations stated consist of refusing to test detainees for COVID-19; shredding medical requests submitted by detained immigrants; fabricating medical records; allowing employees to work while symptomatic and awaiting COVID-19 test results; withholding information from detainees; and lack of concern for employees who have tested positive. Priyanka Bhatt, an attorney at Project South stated, “For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center...detained immigrants have been reporting for years: gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care, and unsanitary living conditions at Irwin." Since then, Wooten has been demoted from “working full-time” to “as needed.”
LaSalle Corrections is the company that runs the Irwin County Detention Center, along with other facilities—all of which are in three southern states—and lawyers working on this case had requested an investigation into the “practices at other ICDC and LaSalle-run facilities.” Another LaSalle-run correctional facility, Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, had complaints that claimed they used “unsafe tactics that put detainees and employees at risk for COVID-19.” However, LaSalle has denied all allegations at a congressional hearing in July.
On one of the complaints, red flags appeared over the rate of unauthorized hysterectomies. According to the complaint, a detainee claimed that when she had talked to five women who had hysterectomies "[they] 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...It was like they're experimenting with our bodies." According to Dr. Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, “medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not law enforcement, and that a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would ‘never be performed against a detainee's will.”
Democratic lawmakers, immigrant advocacy groups, and health specialists have responded to the claims by calling the inspector general, and others have begun to take steps to put an end to “the abuse of human rights” in detention centers. The Center for American Progress, a policy institute, recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic would harm the Black and LatinX community more in the US because other immigration/detention centers—like those that are run by LaSalle— are “incapable of protecting the health of people in custody.” The director of women’s health and rights at the center, Jamille Fields Allsbrook, has even urged some policymakers to take steps to pass the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. As stated by Allsbrook, “The United States has a long and sordid history of reproductive coercion and forced sterilization, particularly targeting Black, Latina, and Native American women as well as women with disabilities and incarcerated women."
According to a joint statement regarding the conditions and medical care at facility made by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council: “ egregious medical negligence within ICE facilities in recent years," including the detention of pregnant women and infants younger than 1-year-old...we filed a civil rights complaint documenting numerous unsanitary and unsafe conditions in 11 ICE facilities as well as gross failures to protect individuals in custody during the COVID-19 pandemic...If, after a full investigation, the allegations prove to be true, all measures must be taken to seek justice for the victims and hold DHS leadership fully accountable.”
The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act needs to be passed because there isn’t much legislative action protecting the rights of detainees. The allegations against detention centers for unsafe medical practices should be assessed properly and ICE, the DHS, and everyone else who has had some involvement in those violations of human rights, must be held accountable.