DHS Probes Whistleblower Claims Of Unwanted Hysterectomies At Private ICE Jail

Whistleblower Dawn Wooten was interviewed on MSNBC
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September 17, 2020 12:37 p.m.

The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog is investigating a whistleblower complaint alleging that immigrants locked up at a private detention center in Georgia underwent unwanted medical procedures, including hysterectomies. 

The complaint, which cited the experiences of a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center, was filed Monday by a network of human rights groups and alleged that a gynecologist treating detainees often performed procedures that weren’t necessary or otherwise weren’t fully explained to patients. 

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” said the nurse, Dawn Wooten, as quoted in the complaint. “I’ve had several inmates tell me 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,” she added.

“That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector,” Wooten said in the complaint, referring to the gynecologist that the outlet Prism Reports first identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin. An attorney for Amin has told multiple outlets he “vehemently” denies the allegations and expected the doctor to be cleared of wrongdoing.

An attorney for Project South, one of the groups that filed the complaint, acknowledged to The Washington Post that she had not heard first-hand accounts of forced sterilizations, but that the group wanted further investigation. 

LaSalle Corrections, the company that owns and runs the Irwin facility, has not responded to TPM’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told NBC News, “Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC.”

The complaint described a detained immigrant who, in an interview with Project South this summer, said she’d spoken to five different detained women at Irwin between October and December last year who’d had hysterectomies. When speaking about the procedure, the unnamed immigrant told Project South the women “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.”

In an interview with the Intercept, which first reported on the whistleblower complaint, Wooten estimated more than 20 women detained at Irwin had allegedly undergone hysterectomies over the past six years.

In a statement, Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, told multiple outlets that only two individuals at Irwin had been “referred” for hysterectomies since 2018. But the statement doesn’t mention hysterectomies performed without referral. Nor does it address the allegations of several detainees who, since the whistleblower’s complaint was made public, have bolstered its claims with their own. 

“Out of respect for the process of matters pending before the [Office of Inspector General], ICE does not comment prematurely on reported allegations, and ICE intends to fully cooperate with any resulting investigation by the OIG,” Rivera said. 

Pauline Binam, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon, has said through an attorney that while she believed she was entering surgery last year for a procedure known as dilation and curettage, she awoke from surgery to learn that in fact one of her fallopian tubes had been removed. 

Binam was set to be deported Wednesday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in an interview, but Binam was removed from her flight following intervention from Lee and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

NPR, The New York Times and other outlets have quoted other attorneys who said their detained clients had frequently complained about gynecological care at Irwin. 

Benjamin Osorio, an attorney representing women detained at Irwin, recalled two separate cases to NBC News. In one case, a woman was told a hysterectomy was needed to address cancerous ovarian cysts, but she was not given a biopsy to confirm as much, Osorio said. Another client of his was told she needed a hysterectomy for stage 4 cervical cancer — but was later informed by another doctor, after the hysterectomy, that she did not have cancer, according to Osorio.

More than 170 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Tuesday requesting an investigation of the whistleblower complaint.

Ken Cuccinelli, a top deputy at DHS, told National Review that he’d asked DHS OIG to expedite its review — though Cuccinelli said the allegations had not been backed up by records or requests for payment provided by ICE. 

Cuccinelli told National Review that in addition to the OIG investigation, another DHS audit team was looking into the allegations. 

The OIG did not respond to TPM’s request for comment Thursday.

Amin was subject to a 2015 Justice Department probe over false Medicare and Medicaid claims. He and other doctors, as well as the Hospital Authority of Irwin County, collectively paid the federal government $525,000 in a civil settlement. 

Wooten’s complaint largely focused on failures at Irwin to address the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as incorrect records of who has tested positive for the virus there. Wooten alleges she was demoted after she spoke out about the allegations.

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