"Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out," a former nurse at the facility said of a local gynecologist

By Diane Herbst
September 15, 2020 05:32 PM
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A concerning number of hysterectomies have been performed on migrant women held at a Georgia detention center — some of whom didn't know why they had the procedure — according to a former nurse at the facility who is part of a new whistleblower complaint alleging "jarring medical neglect."

"Everybody [the doctor] sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody," Dawn Wooten, who worked at Irwin County Detention Center until July, said in the complaint, filed Monday by the Government Accountability Project and advocacy groups on behalf of Wooten and some detained migrants.

Wooten was referring to an unnamed, off-site gynecologist in the complaint.

"He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady,” she said in the complaint.

"We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out," Wooten said of the gynecologist. "That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly."

NBC News reported that three lawyers in the case identified the doctor, whose attorney denied the allegations, describing him instead as a "highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia."

(PEOPLE has not confirmed the doctor's identity.)

"Is he collecting these things or something?" Wooten said in the complaint. "Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world."

According to the complaint, Wooten "expressed concern regarding the high numbers of detained immigrant women at ICDC receiving hysterectomies."

A lawyer who had worked with some of the women told NBC News she spoke to management at the detention center about some of these issues "two to three years ago."

"I told [management] I had heard from multiple people that he was rough, that they were scared to go to him, that they didn't understand what he was doing," the lawyer said of the doctor.

The whistleblower complaint states that while some of the detainees had issues requiring a hysterectomy but “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad,” according to Wooten.

Wooten told NBC News: "I had a detainee that asked me, she said, 'What is he doing Ms. Wooten, collecting all of our uteruses?' And I just looked at her puzzled because I didn’t have an answer."

Another lawyer involved told NBC News she'd been told of a lot of women being diagnosed with ovarian cysts.

In another case, a woman was told she had cancerous ovarian cysts requiring a hysterectomy, though a biopsy was not done; and a third patient was told she had cervical cancer — until an oncologist in North Carolina refuted that after the woman had already had a hysterectomy, NBC News reported.

"I don’t think this is necessarily a systemic sterilization by ICE. I think this is the kind of thing that is allowed to flourish in the course of poor oversight and terrible, inhumane conditions of confinement," attorney Sarah Owings told NBC.

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What's more, migrants at the facility, run by the company LaSalle Corrections, are also neither properly protected from exposure to the coronavirus disease COVID-19 nor properly treated for the illness, according to the complaint filed with the internal watchdog of the Department of Homeland Security, which runs Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The complaint further alleges a years-long record of "human rights abuses including lack of medical and mental health care, due process violations [and] unsanitary living conditions" at the Irwin County facility, according to previous detainee accounts. The center has a capacity of about 1,200.

"This place is not equipped for humans," one migrant said, according to the complaint.

Those failures have taken on greater urgency amid a pandemic, according to the complaint. Some 42 detainees at facility had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday.

The documents describe a lack of coronavirus testing at the facility as well as destruction of records, failure to follow health guidelines to curb the virus and symptomatic employees who continued to work while information about infections was hidden from staff and detainees.

The advocacy groups argue that "these life-threatening concerns require immediate attention and correction before more employees and detained immigrants at ICDC become sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses due to lack of medical care and proper COVID-19 policies."

Allegations by Wooten, the former nurse, of a high number of hysterectomies are supported by detained immigrants and other nurses, according to the complaint. 

One detainee said she spoke to five other detained women at the facility between October and December of 2019, each of whom had a hysterectomy done.

"When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," the detainee told Project South, one of the advocacy groups who filed the complaint. "It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

Some of them didn't even know why they were having the surgery, according to the complaint.

Wooten said that several of the women told her that "they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.”

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ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams tells PEOPLE in a statement that the agency does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General.

"ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results," Williams said. "That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

In a later statement, the ICE Health Service Corps' medical director said "the accusations will be fully investigated by an independent office, however, ICE vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures. ICE’s mission is to protect the homeland and to swiftly and quickly remove people from the country; the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities."

In an email, a spokesman for LaSalle Corrections declined to comment "during pending administrative reviews and/or litigation."

But he went on to say that the company is "firmly committed to the health and welfare of those in our care. We are deeply committed to delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments. Also, preventing and addressing infectious diseases to protect the health of those who reside and work in our facilities is a key part of our facility operations."

The DHS Office of the Inspector General did not respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.

In addition to Project South, the complaint was filed by advocacy groups Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.

The Trump administration has made restricting immigration, both legal and illegal, a cornerstone of government policy — even as advocates and numerous detainees say the conditions migrants have been held in is often unsafe and inhumane.

The government previously came under fire for separating migrant children from their parents.

President Donald Trump also has a history of demeaning comments about immigrants, particularly from Central and South American countries.