ATLANTA — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the Trump administration Tuesday to investigate a whistleblower complaint alleging deplorable conditions at a federal immigration detention center in South Georgia.
Filed by a coalition of advocacy groups with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, the 27-page complaint alleges a high number of hysterectomies have been performed on detainees held at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla.
It also accuses the center of refusing to test symptomatic detainees for COVID-19, failing to distribute personal protective equipment to staff and systematically underreporting coronavirus disease cases.
The inspector general's office and a spokesman for the company that operates the detention center, Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"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," Pelosi said in a prepared statement.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called on the inspector general to immediately investigate the complaint.
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, the Republican congressman who represents the area that includes the detention center, said he had reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those agencies, he said, "have assured us that they take all allegations seriously and are firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in their custody. We will continue to be in contact with them as they investigate these claims."
ICE released a statement Tuesday, forcefully pushing back against the allegations. The agency said it is working to stop the spread of COVID-19 and added that only two Irwin detainees have been referred for hysterectomies since 2018. Those patients, ICE said, were referred to "certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities."
"Based on their evaluations, these specialists recommended hysterectomies These recommendations were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved," ICE said. "To be clear, medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not by law enforcement personnel. Detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee's will."
Project South filed the complaint Monday along with Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network. Detainees have been sent to an outside gynecologist they "did not trust," the complaint says. One detainee, according to the complaint, said she talked to five others between October and December of last year who had hysterectomies.
"When she talked to them about the surgery, the women 'reacted confused when explaining why they had one done,'" the complaint says. "The woman told Project South that it was as though the women were 'trying to tell themselves it's going to be OK.' She further said: 'When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they're experimenting with our bodies.' "
A detainee, according to the complaint, said the detention center's staff and the doctor's office did not properly explain to her what procedure she was going to have done. She reported feeling scared and frustrated, according to the complaint, saying it "felt like they were trying to mess with my body."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has asked Project South to speak with these detainees. The advocacy group's complaint also contains information about the hysterectomies from a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who has worked at the center. Wooten, who has said she was demoted at the detention center for speaking up, submitted a declaration outlining her allegations, but that document has not been publicly released. At a news conference Tuesday, she detailed some of her complaints about the center's response to COVID-19.
"You would have masks and maybe no gowns or you would have gowns and maybe no masks or you wouldn't have face shields. Or you would have to share them," Wooten told reporters just outside ICE's downtown Atlanta offices. "And there was no instruction on proper cleanliness of these things that we had to use inside the facility."
As of Monday, the federal agency had reported 43 cases of COVID-19 among Irwin's detainees and no deaths from the disease. Nationwide, there have been 5,799 detainee cases and six deaths from COVID-19, including two at Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia.