Whistleblower Nurse in ICE Jail Alleges Forced Sterilization & Neglect Amid 8th COVID Death

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As ICE confirms the 20th person to die in its detention in fiscal year 2020, making it one of the deadliest periods in the agency’s history, we talk to the whistleblower at the center of an explosive complaint that accuses an ICE jail in Georgia of failing to adhere to coronavirus safety protocols and performing a large number of unwanted hysterectomies on detainees. The doctor who carried out the procedures became known to women inside the facility as “the uterus collector.” Whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, says the neglect and abuse at the facility was “jaw-dropping.” We also speak with Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, who says authorities must take action now. “What else would it take for decision makers to finally move and do something about this before we see additional tragedies at these facilities?” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The official death toll from COVID-19 in the United States is just hitting 200,000, though the real number is almost certainly far higher. Some public health experts say infections could spike this fall and winter and double the death count by the end of the year.

As the virus continues to spread, we look now at allegations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement helped spread the virus through medical neglect and abuse in ICE jails. On Monday, ICE confirmed the 20th person to die in its detention in fiscal year 2020, making it one of the deadliest periods in the agency’s history. Cipriano Chávez Álvarez was a 61-year-old Mexican immigrant who had been held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, and died in a nearby hospital. His passing marks the third COVID-19 fatality at that jail and the eighth known COVID death in ICE custody. ICE says nearly 5,700 prisoners nationwide have been infected with COVID.

This comes as an explosive complaint filed on behalf of a whistleblower nurse accuses a different ICE jail in Georgia, the Irwin County Detention Center, of failing to protect both prisoners and employees from the virus. The whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, a nurse, was a nurse at the jail. She said it failed to adhere to coronavirus safety protocols. She also alleges a large number of unwanted hysterectomies had been performed on prisoners by a local doctor known as “the uterus collector.”

The complaint does not name a specific staff doctor, but lawyers for several people detained there have told Tina Vasquez at Prism and other news outlets, including The New York Times, that he’s an obstetrics and gynecology specialist named Mahendra Amin, who has an office in the city of Douglas near the ICE jail. It’s been reported that Amin and other doctors previously paid half a million dollars in a settlement of a civil federal Medicare fraud allegation.

The Intercept reported that three prisoners said Amin had performed at least 20 hysterectomies over six years. One said while Amin was excising a cyst from her ovary, he removed part of a fallopian tube without her consent. Amin told The Intercept that, quote, “Everything is wrong” about the complaint.

ICE said in a statement that only two prisoners at Irwin County had undergone hysterectomies since 2018, and has not confirmed how many other potentially sterilizing surgeries were done, such as tubal ligations.

Dawn Wooten will join us in a minute to describe what she saw. She spoke out after nine women detained in Irwin managed to film and have uploaded to YouTube in April. The women wore makeshift masks and held signs that said, “There are sick people here,” “We are not criminals,” and “Please help.” One by one, they came forward to tell their stories.

IRWIN PRISONER 1: [translated] I work in intake. I see the people who enter. I see how the guards work. All I saw is that they ask people to leave when they enter — men, women, whoever. They don’t attend to them. They don’t ask them the necessary questions to diagnose them. We are at risk. They don’t give us anything to cover ourselves so that we can protect ourselves. I was the first person that got sick. I went to the clinic, and it lasted no more than five minutes. They didn’t give me necessary resources. They simply told me, “You’re fine. Go back to your cell.”

IRWIN PRISONER 2: [translated] We need protection, please. All we want is for people to listen to their conscience, their hearts, because we are so many mothers in this place who are suffering so much, so many humiliations, for the love of God. Why can’t ICE understand? Why do we have to wait more than a year to get a court date?

AMY GOODMAN: That was April. On Monday, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee issued a report that concluded immigrants in ICE jails systematically receive inadequate medical, dental and mental healthcare, and face solitary confinement as a punishment for speaking out. As coronavirus cases continue to surge inside ICE prisons, the report notes, quote, “The spread of COVID-19 has further highlighted how the failures to meet these standards of care are a matter of life and death.”

This comes as at least 160 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the inspector general demanding an investigation into the reports a doctor in Georgia was performing hysterectomies on immigrant women at Irwin without their consent. This is Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey speaking Monday about whistleblower Dawn Wooten’s allegations.

REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: My heart has been broken by some of the things that I’ve read over the last couple of weeks. I’m definitely very concerned about what we heard from the whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, about the barbaric treatment of detainees at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. And if these allegations are true, this is really probably one of the most inhumane things I have heard coming out of an administration that I think has very little low — bottom to its low.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as ICE has now temporarily halted the deportation of Pauline Binam, a Cameroonian mother who says she was involuntarily sterilized while detained in Georgia. Binam was already on the plane Wednesday when her deportation was stopped. She has lived in the United States since the age of 2.

For more, we’re joined from Atlanta by Dawn Wooten, the licensed practical nurse who filed this widely discussed whistleblower complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General about abuses at the privately run Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. Also with us in Atlanta, Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, which helped file the complaint.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dawn Wooten, let’s begin with you on this issue of forced sterilization, of hysterectomies, that is included in this complaint. Can you explain what the women mean when they talk about a “uterus collector”?

DAWN WOOTEN: I’ve had several women to come to me over the course of time. And in my last attendance there at Irwin County Detention Center, I had a couple of women to come to me and say, you know, “Every time we go out, or every time we go to this place, in talking with other detained women there, that they had this in common.” They would talk about him being “the uterus collector.”

And in hearing it, you know, you don’t know what to say or how to respond. But that was the term that they had given at the time, was that he’s “the uterus collector.” Her actual question was, “What does he do? What does he go around — collecting everybody’s uterus?” You know, it’s jaw-dropping. There’s really not a response to give them for that terminology, but that’s the terminology that was given to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dawn Wooten, how many of these women were you able to talk to directly? And were some of them giving you secondhand information that they had heard from other women in the center?

DAWN WOOTEN: Yes. They become family. Whenever they cohabitate together, they build what they call families inside of the dormitories. And they share experiences, and they share life stories there. And they become really close. So, in coming into, in hearing, you know, they had devised that term, “the uterus collector.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve also raised, in your complaint, the situation in terms of the treatment of detainees, in general, about — in reference to COVID. Could you talk about the direct experiences that you had with how the facility was dealing with COVID patients?

DAWN WOOTEN: Yes. In March, whenever we had first come across COVID-19, the first case that was there was not a case. You know, it was like it was invisible. It was silenced. You know, we were not to share it with other employees. We were not to share it with outside. We were not to share it amongst ourselves. There was a time to where I was told that you don’t inform the officers that this person is COVID-positive. You know, in the beginning, they didn’t take wearing masks seriously. We didn’t have proper PPE in the beginning. It was like a cover-up. It never existed. And as time progressed inside of the facility and there were more cases that systemically appeared, we were still at a place there to where you hear — it was unbelievable — “We didn’t have it. Don’t you talk about it. Don’t you discuss it. That’s not true.”

I am a mother with an underlying condition. I have underlying conditions. And once the terms came to, “Hey, there’s COVID-19 inside of this facility,” they were not reporting to the health department. They were not reporting to the CDC. So, there were cases in the beginning that were not accounted for. They were not justified. And I became in fear not just for myself, but for the lives of others that were around me, as well as my children.

We had N95s. I received one in March. I asked for one again in May, and I was told that “You’re going to have to put this in a bag. You were given one in March.” And until July the 2nd, last day at the facility, I still hadn’t received an N95, that I knew was in the building.

And I had a detainee to — someone stopped me in the hall and said, “Can you check this man’s temp?” I went to check the detainee’s temp. It was 101.8. I went, and I concurred with my supervisor. And one nurse said at the shift change it was 97.3. You know, going back to check it a second time, it’s 101.8. He had a valid temp. I was told that they wrap themselves in covering, has to depend on what time of day. “Hand him some ibuprofen.” That’s not professional nursing. That is not something that I can do. He was not tested.

You have several detainees that would come up, and they would be symptomatic. But I was told that everybody reads the news, everybody sees the news, they know how to present the symptoms coming across the news. It was inhumane. And it was not justifiably correct. I live by you treat people how you want to be treated. You don’t treat people as if they don’t exist. And they were ignored.

The sanitation, we didn’t have anything to sanitize with. There was no hand sanitizer. We were not wiping down. Six-feet distance — there was not six-feet distance. We were all a couple of nurses in a room. And not only were detainees positive, but there were also employees positive. It wasn’t taken seriously. And I feared for my life and the lives of those that are around.

AMY GOODMAN: You, yourself, Dawn Wooten, suffer from sickle cell. You voiced your complaints about the lack of protection for staff, like you, a nurse, as well as the prisoners. Can you talk about whether or not you think that was related to your demotion?

DAWN WOOTEN: I do. I have sickle cell. I had to have a minute procedure. And when I took it to my supervisor, I was told, “Even though you’re going to be COVID-tested, you can still come to work. Wear a mask.” I was symptomatic. I went to the physician earlier on in this COVID case at Irwin County Detention Center. I was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection. I had fluid on my lung. I was taking inhalation or breathing treatments. I was on antibiotics. I was running a temp. I had diarrhea. I had headaches. I had chest pain. I had a cough, a raspy cough. I was told I still could present to work because my test confirmed that I was negative, but I was symptomatic.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Azadeh Shahshahani into the conversation, because we just reported that another person has died in an ICE prison, not at Irwin, where Nurse Wooten worked, but in a separate facility. And I was wondering if you can tell us the latest news on him.

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Sure, Amy. Thank you very much for having me.

First, I wanted to say that, as Project South, we’re part of a movement that believes that systematic and state violence is not to be tolerated in any form, so whether it’s ICE caging and harming immigrants or cops murdering Black people in the streets with impunity. And we are truly honored as Project South to be representing Ms. Wooten along with the Government Accountability Project. She’s truly a hero for telling us about this outrageous conduct on behalf of the facility.

So, you know, we don’t really know very much about the death of Cipriano Chávez Álvarez, a 61-year-old man. He was a Mexican national. As far as I know, ICE has not even issued a press statement at this point. But what we do know is that this marks the third death at the Stewart Detention Center, also a corporate-owned facility, during the pandemic. So, three men have already died of COVID-19 or complications related to COVID-19. And two of them were elderly, including Mr. Cipriano Chávez Álvarez. And the other one, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, was a 34-year-old man who had diabetes.

So, the question is: Why would ICE continue to hold people who are elderly or have preexisting conditions in a facility that we already know is a deadly one? You know, seven people have died at the Stewart Detention Center just in the past three years, two of them by suicide after being placed in solitary for prolonged periods of time. So, you know, those of us on the ground who have called for this facility, Stewart, as well as Irwin, to be shut down for a long time, the question that we have is: What else would it take for decision makers to finally move and do something about this, before we see additional tragedies at these facilities?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Azadeh, we played at the beginning of this segment a clip of some women at the facility talking about the conditions back in April. Could you talk about the context of that and what happened to those women after this video got out?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Sure. So, instead of addressing their concerns and actually taking care of the people inside to make sure that this deadly disease does not spread, the facility, run by a private corporation, LaSalle, proceeded to retaliate against all the women who were involved in the making of that video in any way. So they placed them in solitary confinement for a number of days. And that led to extreme emotional and mental health damage for all of them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one of the most egregious points raised in the complaint of Dawn Wooten is this whole issue of whether there had been sterilizations of women occurring at Irwin without their consent. Could you talk about what your organization knows about this and how extensive it is?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Sure. So, yeah, thanks to Ms. Dawn Wooten and her courage in coming out about all of this, and, you know, the documentation and the complaint that we were able to release, that has really opened the door to a lot of lawyers coming forward, a lot of immigrants coming forward. You know, we are in touch with lawyers, trying to track down women all over the world who have been at this facility and have suffered some type of violation to their body. I mean, it is truly egregious that immigrant women at a truly vulnerable situation at this facility, at the mercy of ICE and the LaSalle corporation, were treated in this fashion. And so, you know, what we do know is that there were hysterectomies. There were other procedures that were done on women without their consent.

And I would like to address ICE’s response in terms of, you know, the number of hysterectomies. First of all, what they said is that they know of only two people being referred for hysterectomies. You know, part of what we’re saying is that, based on what we know about what was happening and what this doctor was doing, people may have been referred for something else, you know, a minor issue, like what happened with Pauline Binam. You know, she went in for a minor issue, and then, the next thing she knew, her fallopian tube was taken out, that that led to a sterilization. So, you know, the question is: What happened at the doctor’s office in terms of the procedures?

And secondly, you know, those of us who have been doing immigrants’ rights work for a long time know that ICE has no moral credibility whatsoever, and anything that they say should be taken with a grain of salt. And also, there are assertions about shredding of medical information at this facility, and so that also shines a doubt on what ICE is asserting here. And lastly, they are themselves saying that they haven’t been able to determine the true number of gynecological procedures that were done on women.

So, you know, that is why we issued the complaint. There is absolutely a need for an independent and thorough investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and by Congress, and we need to shut this place down.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we reported earlier Tina Vasquez at Prism and other outlets, including The New York Times, say that the doctor is an obstetrics and gynecology specialist named Mahendra Amin, who has an office in the city of Douglas near the ICE jail. It’s been reported that he and other doctors previously paid half a million dollars in a settlement of a civil federal Medicare fraud allegation years ago. What do you know about him? You have ICE Dr. Ada Rivera, the medical director of ICE Health Services Corporation, saying the reports would be investigated, but that the agency, quote, “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.” What do know about Dr. Mahendra Amin, in particular? And overall, are more doctors involved, Azadeh?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: So, what the media has reported about Dr. Amin — and I should clarify that Project South, the Government Accountability Project and our client, Ms. Wooten, are not able to confirm the identity of the doctor. But what the media has reported about Dr. Amin is that this person was not even board-certified, which raises the question about the level of care that ICE has for the people in its custody, that they would send people, over a number of years, to a physician who was not even board-certified. And what the media has reported is that, you know, in addition to the settlement that you mentioned with the Department of Justice, Dr. Amin was also involved in a series of lawsuits. So, that all remains to be investigated. You know, we do not know for sure at this point whether there were other physicians involved, in terms of what was happening at the facility, in terms of referring people to him. You know, that all needs to be investigated. And again, that is why we filed the report.

AMY GOODMAN: Is he still operating at the jail?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: From what we know, they have stopped referring people to Dr. Amin, but that happened very, very late in the game.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Wooten, I know you have to leave, and we so appreciate you taking this time. Do you fear for your own safety as you speak out? And what happens to those inside the prison, the immigrant women who speak out?

DAWN WOOTEN: Safety is an issue. Haven’t gotten any, you know, wild threats or anybody saying, you know, that, “Hey, we’re going to come after you.” But at the same time, it’s an issue, because any time that you hold morally and ethically and you do what’s right and correct, you have to realize that now I’ve become a target. The voice — and the ladies that are there at the facility, yes, I empathize with those ladies that are speaking out at the facility, because we live in the real world, and we process things in the real world differently. So, there is — as women, we’re supposed to remain silent, according to the world, and we’re not supposed to have a voice. So, in speaking out, I am concerned for them and for how they’re going to be treated and isolated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d also like to ask Azadeh Shahshahani — a lot of people don’t realize still, unfortunately, that the people held in detention, in ICE detention, that this is — are largely there on civil issues and are awaiting hearings in their cases. They are not criminals, yet they are treated, in large part, by the government’s detention centers as criminals.

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Juan, you know, I should say that, obviously, regardless of what offense a person may have been accused of, or not, in this really corrupt criminal legal process, obviously, everybody is entitled to human rights, fundamental human rights, and we should be fighting for everybody’s human dignity the same.

It is true that these facilities are civil detention centers, and the people held in these facilities, many of them, are awaiting deportation proceedings, or they may be asylum seekers. You know, they may be afraid of torture in their home countries, and that is why they fled to the U.S., to try to find refuge in this country. And instead, you know, the U.S. government places them in these horrid places where they are denied basic human rights in terms of medical care, clean water, good food, edible food. And when they complain, the U.S. government and the private prison corporations retaliate against them by, you know, using tear gas in some cases, placing them in solitary confinement and trying to basically shut down their voices.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of now the House calling for an investigation into all of this? I mean, you had Houston Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee, you have Pramila Jayapal — before she was a congressmember, major immigrant rights activist in Seattle — leading this charge and getting 160 congressmembers to sign on, which led to Pauline Binam being taken off the plane as it was about to take off in Chicago. What do you want to see come out of this investigation?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Yeah, that is huge. You know, especially, again, those of us on the ground have been calling for a number of years on Congress to act, and they did not, even after people started dying at Stewart. They didn’t do anything significant. And then, as a result of the national outrage last week, we are glad that finally Congress is paying attention. We have been contacted by multiple congressional staffers about the complaint. And so, you know, we do hope that there is continued pressure on the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to ensure that they conduct a thorough and independent investigation into violations at the facility.

And, you know, there’s been a lot of attention on the evils that the doctor did, but the problem goes beyond this one doctor. These were people in the custody of the U.S. government. You know, at the end of the day, the buck stops with ICE and with the U.S. government. And so they need to be held accountable, as well as the private prison corporation. And what we are demanding is that the facility be shut down.

AMY GOODMAN: Azadeh Shahshahani, I want to thank you so much for being with us, legal and advocacy director at Project South. And, Dawn Wooten, thanks so much for joining us, licensed practical nurse who filed a whistleblower complaint about the abuses at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. We will continue to cover this issue.

When we come back, we’ll look at Belly of the Beast, a new documentary on California’s dark history of forced sterilizations inside women’s prisons. Stay with us.

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“Belly of the Beast”: Survivors of Forced Sterilizations in California’s Prisons Fight for Justice

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