The allegations are ghastly: Women held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center were given hysterectomies without their consent, with a single doctor performing so many hysterectomies that one immigrant told advocates the facility was “like an experimental concentration camp.”
A whistleblower complaint made public this week alleged unhealthy conditions and inadequate care for detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in rural Ocilla, Ga., and raised concerns about the high number of hysterectomies performed on women being held at the facility, saying that “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”
In the complaint, Dawn Wooten, who had worked at ICDC as a licensed practical nurse, said the gynecologist who treated detainees there was nicknamed “the uterus collector” because “everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out.” The doctor, Mahendra Amin, is based in nearby Douglas, Ga. A lawyer for Amin, Scott Grubman, said that Amin denies the whistleblower’s allegations.
“Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia,” Grubman said in an email.
Amin was investigated in 2015 by the Justice Department for making false claims to Medicaid and Medicare. He and other doctors involved paid $520,000 in a civil settlement, according to the Justice Department.
R. Andrew Free, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, said he is representing three women who had hysterectomies or other invasive gynecological procedures while held at ICDC for which they did not provide informed consent.
“Based on discussions with people who have been treated by this doctor, a review of their medical records and based on a review of other complaints by women who have been at ICDC, a pattern seems to be emerging,” Free said. “Almost uniformly, individuals with limited English proficiency feel as though they did not receive proper and competent medical interpretation explaining to them the nature or necessity of medical procedures performed by the facility and its doctors.”
Free said that since Wooten made her explosive claim, he has seen complaints about gynecological care from more than 35 other detainees held at ICDC. He said women at the prison set up a buddy system under which an English-speaking detainee would accompany other detainees to the doctor to “ensure they get the care they’re actually seeking.”
“Other reports I have reviewed indicate women feel that they did not receive a complete explanation of the procedures performed on them, including surgeries, nor did they receive an adequate opportunity to consider whether they wished for those surgeries to be performed,” Free said. “A troubling pattern seems to be emerging that bears further investigation, whereby women who complain about surgeries that are planned or have been conducted are shunted into the facility’s mental health system where they issue their complaints and tell the mental health providers they are not making psychiatric referral requests, but rather have fear or regret about surgical procedures performed on their bodies.”
Of the new victims who are coming forward, Free said: “These women deserve to be believed, they deserve to be taken seriously, they deserve a full and transparent investigation, and at bottom, they deserve the right to see another doctor.”
Van Huynh is also a lawyer for a patient that Dr. Amin treated. She said her client Pauline Binam first told her about problems with the medical care at ICDC in August 2019. Binam, a native of Cameroon who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., was nabbed by ICE after a shoplifting charge was dismissed in 2017. During her time at ICDC, Binam was told she needed a procedure known as dilation and curettage (“D&C”) to clean the lining of her uterus.
“She had been informed she had a cyst on her ovary and that they needed to remove it,” Huynh said. “Instead, when she woke up the doctor told her he had removed one of her fallopian tubes because he told her it was clogged.”
Huynh said her 30-year-old client became distraught because Amin told her she might not be able to have children as a result of the surgery.
“Pauline was very clear and adamant about the fact that she did not consent to the surgery and would not have consented to the surgery if she knew what the implications would be for her future,” Huynh said. “If there were any hopes and dreams she had about having kids in the future, a lot of that is in question.”
Binam has not had her period since the surgery was performed, Huynh said, and it is unclear if she will be able to get pregnant. She spent a year before the whistleblower complaint emerged trying in vain to get officials at ICDC to take her seriously.
“No one listened to her,” Huynh said.
ICDC is run by a private prison company called LaSalle Corrections. A spokesman for LaSalle didn’t return multiple calls or an email seeking comment. ICDC has the capacity to hold 1,201 prisoners.
“There was a lack of oversight on this doctor and the facility itself,” Huynh said. “Just the type of recommendations for surgeries that were being provided. I have heard of stories of other women who have undergone surgery without their consent who have now been deported.”
ICE has pledged to fully investigate the women’s allegations. A statement by Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, said ICE “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”
Rivera said “detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will.”
Conditions in ICE detention centers are notoriously poor. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit claiming that detainees were denied adequate health care and disability accommodations while being held in 158 immigrant prisons across the country.
The SPLC lawsuit charged that the for-profit companies being paid hundreds of dollars a day per detainee are not adequately caring for their charges. According to the SPLC, immigrants held inside ICE detention centers are subjected to rampant abuse and mistreatment, including the denial of proper medical screening and care and extended periods of time in solitary confinement.
Last year, House Oversight Committee staff members visited several facilities, including ICDC, where ICE holds detainees. In a letter to ICE’s inspector general, acting Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney reported substantial concerns about verbal abuse, sleep deprivation and use of aggressive force at the detention centers.
Many Americans have become inured to reports of poor conditions in jails, but allegations of forced hysterectomies and other inappropriate gynecological care at Irwin captured public attention this week, reminding many of America’s past history of state control over the bodies of poor and immigrant women. In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to forcibly sterilize people considered unfit to bear children. As many as 70,000 Americans, many of them minority or immigrant women, were sterilized during the 20th century without their consent.
The Irwin County Detention Center has long been on the radar of civil rights attorneys. Elizabeth Matherne, an immigration attorney based near the detention center, told Yahoo News that in the fall of 2018 she had a particularly disturbing experience with a client inside the prison who was both very ill and extremely adamant that she would not see the prison gynecologist.
The young woman, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had a fever a few days after Matherne’s initial visit. Matherne arrived back at Irwin to find her client with “extreme pain in her abdomen that radiated to her legs. She was doubled over, tears streaming down her face.”
Matherne suspected an infection from her miscarriage not being properly treated, which can be a serious condition. But despite Matherne begging the young woman to see the prison gynecologist, the young woman would not go.
“She was afraid that he would hurt her or do things to her without explaining to her what would be done,” Matherne said. The attorney told Yahoo News she reported her concerns to management at the Irwin County Detention Center in 2018, when the incident occurred. She said that the prison allowed her client to be seen by a different doctor, but they did not replace the gynecologist they were using even though Matherne said she “implored them to stop using that doctor.”
Lorilei Williams, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, said that ICDC is known among immigration attorneys in Georgia for being a tough place.
“Irwin has a history of not providing adequate medical care to people with medical needs in the detention center,” Williams said. “There’s been several reports about Irwin in particular during the pandemic. ... We’ve seen them retaliate against clients in solitary confinement. We’ve had two clients in solitary confinement without running water.”
Whatever went on at ICDC, lawyers say that they are not confident it has stopped. There is the testimony, for example, of immigration lawyer Tracie Klinke. On Tuesday, Klinke held a Zoom meeting with a client at ICDC who is in her mid-20s and who had been at the gynecologist to have a skin rash examined.
Her client came back and said the doctor told her not to worry about the rash, but to be concerned because she had a cyst on her ovary. The doctor suggested her client would need a procedure to remove the cyst. Klinke said her client got back to ICDC and told the other women what the doctor had said and “they were all like, ‘Yes, he always says there’s a cyst involved. We’re not surprised.’”
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