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Democrats to investigate forced surgery claims in Georgia

A nurse alleges that a Georgia detention center performed questionable hysterectomies, refused to test detainees for COVID-19 and shredded medical records.
Credit: AP
Protesters gather at a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 in Atlanta decrying conditions at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Leading congressional Democrats reacted furiously Tuesday to lightly-substantiated claims that immigrants held at a detention center in Georgia are undergoing questionable hysterectomies.

In a complaint filed Monday, a nurse alleges that the Irwin County Detention Center performed questionable hysterectomies, refused to test detainees for COVID-19 and shredded medical records.

Democrats seized on the most explosive allegations in the nurse's complaint — that a gynecologist called the “uterus collector” was performing “mass hysterectomies” — in declaring they would investigate the matter.

A follow-up news conference Tuesday in Atlanta provided little information to substantiate the claims. Lawyers for the nurse, Dawn Wooten, refused to release her full statement that she made to the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General. She declined to take questions after reading a statement that made no reference to mass hysterectomies or did not quantify how many of the procedures were performed on immigrant women at the facility. The doctor is not named in the complaint.

Wooten worked full-time as a licensed practical nurse at the immigration jail until July, when she was demoted.

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Democrats were quick to jump on the allegations after spending the last three years condemning the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, including the separation of families and the detention of children in squalid conditions at the border.

“If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint – including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women – are a staggering abuse of human rights,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said the panel is conducting an ongoing investigation about the conditions at ICE contractor facilities “and will be examining these new and incredibly serious allegations.”

It was unclear to Wooten if women knowingly consented to the operations. She said nurses raised concerns about the doctor.

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody,” Wooten said in the complaint. “He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady.”

The facility in Ocilla, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of Atlanta, houses men and women detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service and Irwin County. It's run by the private LaSalle Corrections, a Louisiana company.

ICE said it does not comment on matters before the inspector general but that it takes all allegations seriously.

“That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve,” the agency said in a statement.

Wooten spoke little about the hysterectomy allegation during the news conference, instead focusing on her concerns that the facility wasn't testing detainees for COVID-19, that the detention center wasn't being sanitized, and that little protective equipment was available for employees.

While the 27-page complaint filed by advocacy group Project South quotes unidentified detainees extensively, it also includes detailed comments from Wooten. The complaint says Wooten was demoted after missing work with coronavirus symptoms, which she believes was retaliation for raising questions about COVID-19.

“I know I was demoted because I raised questions about why," Wooten said during the news conference. “I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees they dealt with day in and day out that were positive.”

Wooten said the number of detainees infected was much higher than reported because there was no active testing and not all cases were reported, according to the complaint. The New York Times reported in June that inmates engaged in protests because of concerns about poor COVID-19 protections.

Wooten is quoted as saying the sick call nurse sometimes fabricated seeing detainees in person when they hadn't and that she saw the nurse shred a box of detainee complaints without looking at them. She said nurses ignored detainees reporting COVID-19 symptoms.

If detainees reported a fever, nurses would put them on an over-the-counter cold medication for seven days without testing them for COVID-19, she said.

Wooten said the facility declined to use two rapid-testing COVID-19 machines that ICE purchased for $14,000 each. No medical staff had been trained on them and she saw the machines used only once.

LaSalle Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday.

As of Sunday, 42 detainees at the facility had tested positive for the virus, according to ICE. Nationwide, 5,772 detainees were positive.

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Spagat reported from San Diego.