U.S. watchdog to investigate whistleblower's detention allegations

by Reuters
Wednesday, 16 September 2020 01:31 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Detained immigrants play soccer behind a barbed wire fence at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Reade Levinson

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Nurse, Dawn Wooten, Wooten said women had received hysterectomies without fully understanding what medical procedures were being ordered

By Mimi Dwyer and Mica Rosenberg

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK, Sept 15 (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials said on Tuesday a federal watchdog would investigate complaints made by a whistleblower nurse in a Georgia immigration detention facility who alleged detainees had improperly received hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

The allegations were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), in a complaint filed to the watchdog, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General, on Monday by advocacy groups Project South and the Government Accountability Project.

Reuters interviewed Wooten but could not independently confirm the claims of improper hysterectomies, or surgery to remove the uterus.

The allegations caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers including U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) denied the allegations. Dr. Ada Rivera, the medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, said in a statement that since 2018, only two individuals at the Irwin center in Georgia were referred for hysterectomies based on recommendations by specialists that "were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved."

LaSalle Corrections, the private contractor that runs the facility, said in a statement that it "strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct" at the Irwin center.

Wooten told Reuters on Monday that women who complained of heavy periods or asked for birth control would be sent to outside gynecologists and sometimes receive hysterectomies but that many did not fully understand what medical procedures were being ordered.

"A lot of them said that they didn't understand what was being done to them. Nobody explained it to them," she said.

Attorneys representing detainees at Irwin told Reuters several women had complained about gynecological treatment by an outside provider to the facility.

Sarah Owings, a Georgia-based immigration attorney, told Reuters she and other advocates were collecting information about hysterectomies performed on detainees, and had put out a call to attorneys to review their files. She had no evidence to suggest these surgeries were widespread, she said.

"I do think there's a situation in which healthcare is not up to par in these places and that there is absolutely room to have lack of oversight," she said.

Elizabeth Matherne, another immigration attorney in Georgia, recalled complaining to detention center officials about treatment her clients said they were receiving from an outside gynecologist.

ICE said in its statement "a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee's will."

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; Editing by Timothy Gardner and Christopher Cushing)