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Pelosi demands probe after ICE nurse raises alarm over medical care, hysterectomies at detention center

A nurse at a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center alleged in a federal complaint that coronavirus precautions are routinely ignored. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats demanded an investigation on Tuesday into claims by a nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Georgia that detainees there have been denied basic medical care and possibly subjected to hysterectomies without their informed consent.

Dawn Wooten, a registered nurse who worked full-time at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, outlined her allegations in a complaint filed on Monday to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General by a coalition of advocacy groups.

“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 statement. “The DHS Inspector General must immediately investigate the allegations detailed in this complaint."

ICE officials on Tuesday promised to cooperate with an investigation, but denied that widespread hysterectomies were performed at Iwrin. According to ICE, just two such procedures have been performed on detainees there since 2018.

“The accusations will be fully investigated by an independent office, however, ICE vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures,” said Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, in a statement. “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.”

In her complaint, Wooten said that she and other nurses had noticed female detainees getting hysterectomies at an improbable rate, and worried that the women didn’t understand what procedure they were receiving, as most medical staff members don’t speak Spanish.

“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,” she said in the complaint.

The report did not detail any detainees who said they had received a hysterectomy against their will; one woman anonymously quoted in the complaint said that she was scheduled for the procedure without her consent but that it was canceled when she tested positive for covid-19.

Priyanka Bhatt, staff attorney at Project South, acknowledged to The Washington Post that she did not speak to any women who had a forced sterilization, and said she included the allegations in the report with the intention of triggering an investigation into whether or not the claims were true.

“I didn’t speak to anyone who had one,” Bhatt said. “But the things we have heard are concerning, and we need to find out more information.”

She added, “When investigating human rights abuses, we conduct extensive interviews with immigrants, and our job is to report what they tell us.”

ICE declined on Monday to comment in more detail on the broader allegations in the complaint, which also alleges widespread failures to adhere to covid-19 safety policies at Irwin. But the agency did cast doubt about its use of anonymous testimony from detainees and former detainees to bolster Wooten’s claims.

“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 to The Post.

LaSalle Corrections, the Louisiana-based company that runs Irwin, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The firm faced similar complaints about coronavirus safety at another facility it runs in Louisiana in July, which a company official denied in later congressional testimony.

ICE has faced scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus at detention centers, with the inspector general opening an investigation of the agency’s practices in May. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that ICE had fueled a large covid-19 outbreak at a Virginia facility by flying detainees there to facilitate the deployment of ICE agents to Washington to quell protests.

ICE flew detainees to Virginia so the planes could transport agents to D.C. protests. A huge coronavirus outbreak followed.

In a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday night, ICE defended its handling of the coronavirus, which the agency says has infected nearly 5,700 detainees nationwide and led to six deaths.

“ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees,” the agency said.

But Wooten says there was widespread disregard for protecting staff members and inmates at the Georgia facility. The nurse worked at Irwin for three years over the course of separate stints, she told the Intercept, but was demoted in July to an on-call position with few hours — retaliation, she claims, for demanding stricter adherence to medical rules.

“They’re still not taking this seriously,” Wooten told the Intercept. “Enough was enough.”

The 27-page complaint filed Monday details a laundry list of alleged failures at the facility: detainees being ignored or denied tests despite having coronavirus symptoms; others who have tested positive being placed back in the general population; and officials fudging statics on the number of infections.

Staff members, Wooten said, were pressured to “work symptomatic and work positive as long as we had a mask on.” Although ICE purchased two $14,000 rapid-test machines, she said, no nurses were ever trained to use them.

Detainees interviewed for the report said that social distancing was impossible and that everyone was given just one mask and no replacement.

“We’re in an open dorm room. Our beds are nothing but three feet apart,” an unnamed detainee said in the report. “Our toilets are about four feet apart with a little wall separating them.”

Although ICE has reported just 42 cases and no deaths from covid-19 at Irwin, Wooten alleged that those numbers are not accurate because officials have not been “reporting all these cases that are positive.”

In general, Wooten outlined a failed medical system at the facility. Nurses there routinely destroyed the paper requests detainees have to fill out to ask for medical help and made up vital signs for reports after not seeing patients, she alleged.