The list of human rights abuses allegedly committed at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers continues to grow. A whistleblower complaint filed on September 14 alleges widespread medical neglect at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia. The complaint documents a range of actions allegedly taken by officials at ICDC, which disregard public health guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to COVID-19 and put the lives of both detained immigrants and ICDC employees at risk. The complaint additionally details the alarmingly high rates at which hysterectomies are allegedly performed on immigrant women in custody.
Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network filed the complaint on behalf of detained immigrants at ICDC and Dawn Wooten, a nurse employed by ICDC, who is a protected whistleblower. ICDC is run by the private prison company, LaSalle Corrections. The whistleblower complaint follows an open letter published in July, which relays whistleblower disclosures about COVID-19-related mismanagement at a LaSalle-operated ICE detention center in Louisiana.
The whistleblower complaint notes a long history of alleged human rights violations at ICE facilities and ICDC in particular. It alleges that inhumane conditions and medical mismanagement have only worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The whistleblower complaint describes recent alleged accounts of “jarring medical neglect at ICDC.” These allegations include ICDC officials’ refusal to test symptomatic detained immigrants for COVID-19, the prescription of over-the-counter medications for treating COVID-19 symptoms, the shredding of medical request forms from detained immigrants, and the fabrication of medical records. The complaint also alleges that ICDC continues to transfer immigrants who have tested positive for COVID-19 and that it does not properly quarantine newly-arrived immigrants.
Additionally, the complaint reports allegations that detained immigrants are incapable of practicing proper social distancing and are not provided proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The complaint quotes one immigrant detained at ICDC who says:
‘There is no social distancing. We’re in an open dorm room. Our beds are nothing but three feet apart. We don’t understand how we’re supposed to do that…our living space is so small; there’s no way we could do that. Our toilets are about four feet apart with a little wall separating them…we breathe the same air, we sneeze, we cough next to each other.’
These conditions have led some detained immigrants to fear for their lives. The complaint quotes an immigrant who told Project South, “‘I don’t want to die here. Please release me, let me be with my family… A lot of people are afraid.’”
In addition to the allegations of life-threatening living conditions for detained immigrants, the complaint alleges that ICDC employees are placed at unnecessary risk to COVID-19. ICDC employees are allegedly expected to report to work even when exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and awaiting test results. Additionally, the complaint alleges a lack of proper PPE for ICDC employees. The complaint details that “Ms. Wooten recalls requesting an N-95 mask several times since her mask broke, but she never received a new one. When she requested it, the supervisor told her the records show she already had one and therefore did not give her a new one. Instead, Ms. Wooten had to purchase her own mask in order to protect herself.” Lastly, ICDC allegedly retaliates against employees who adhere to protocol and public health guidelines or speak out against violations.
Alongside the allegations of COVID-19 medical mismanagement, the complaint relays allegations concerning hysterectomies performed on detained immigrant women. The complaint claims that a number of detained immigrants at ICDC, as well as Wooten, have expressed concern about the high rate at which hysterectomies are performed on women detained at the facility. The complaint reports that many detained immigrant women are sent to a particular gynecologist outside the facility. Wooten explained the concern she and other nurses have felt about this gynecologist:
‘We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly…is he collecting these things or something…Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world.’
The complaint further alleges issues of proper informed consent. The complaint quotes Wooten, who said “‘these immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them.’” The complaint references a detained immigrant woman who alleged that “that staff at ICDC and the doctor’s office did not properly explain to her what procedure she was going to have done.”
The complaint states 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.” It requests “a prompt and thorough investigation into these practices at ICDC as well as all other LaSalle operated facilities as these complaints suggest a more systemic problem.”