By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
“He’s the uterus collector,” a detained immigrant woman told Dawn Wooten, a nurse at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail operated by the private, for-profit prison company LaSalle Corrections. Wooten’s complaint, sent to the Homeland Security Inspector General, describes horrifying conditions at the Irwin County Detention Center in rural Ocilla, Georgia, including inadequate COVID-19 protections for both prisoners and staff, filthy living conditions, inadequate medical care, and disgusting, ant- and cockroach-infested food. Wooten says imprisoned immigrant women she cared for told her a gynecologist subjected them to hysterectomies and other sterilizing procedures without their knowledge or consent. The inhumane conditions at Irwin expose the cruelty embedded in the treatment of immigrants here in the US, exacerbated by these shocking allegations of the forced sterilizations, a sinister practice with a long history in the United States.
Press accounts named the gynecologist as Dr. Mahendra Amin, who has an office not far from the Irwin immigrant jail. Speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour, nurse Dawn Wooten explained, “I had a couple of women come to me…that was the term, that he’s ‘the uterus collector.’ It’s jaw-dropping.” Mahendra Amin was the principal defendant in a federal Medicare and Medicaid fraud case that was settled for $520,000 in 2015. He reportedly performed a procedure on Irwin prisoner Pauline Binam without her consent, leaving her sterilized. After speaking out, Binam was targeted for deportation and put on a plane for Cameroon, the country of her birth that she left for the U.S. at the age of two. Public and Congressional outcry pressured ICE to remove her from the plane, after which she received compassionate release.
Dawn Wooten also described LaSalle’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic: “We didn’t have proper PPE. It was like a cover-up. As time progressed…more [COVID] cases systemically appeared.” She recalled instructions she received: “It was unbelievable — ‘We didn’t have it. Don’t you talk about it. Don’t you discuss it.” Her account parallels descriptions in a June 2020 complaint filed by staff at another private ICE jail run by LaSalle, Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana. Staff there accused LaSalle and ICE of “gross misconduct and failures to comply with CDC guidelines” in their COVID-19 response, “endangering immigrants, workers and the public.” At least two guards at Richwood have died of COVID-19. In the past twelve months, 20 people have died while imprisoned by ICE — the highest number in 15 years. At least seven of those deaths were due to the coronavirus.
“These are civil detention centers, and the people held, many of them, are awaiting deportation proceedings, or they may be asylum seekers…afraid of torture in their home countries, and that is why they fled to the U.S., to try to find refuge,” Azadeh Shahshahani,legal and advocacy director at Project South, said on Democracy Now! “Instead, the U.S. government places them in these horrid places where they are denied basic human rights… When they complain, the government and private prison corporations retaliate against them, using tear gas in some cases, placing them in solitary confinement, trying to shut down their voices.”
The hysterectomies and other sterilizing procedures have sparked a firestorm in the news media and Congress, reminding many that forced sterilizations have been all too common in this country. In the early 20th century, the eugenics movement grew in popularity as immigration from non-white nations exploded. “People believed we needed to uplift the race by changing our gene pool,” Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, said on Democracy Now! “They thought these ‘lesser people’ are coming into the country, they’re going to harm our gene pool, we have to keep them out.’”
The 1927 Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case established the legality of the practice, directly inspiring Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany’s eugenics program. For decades, African Americans and Native Americans were sterilized without their knowledge. Two documentaries provide chilling detail of the practice in California. The 2016 film “No Mas Bébés” (“No More Babies”) depicts the sterilization of Chicana women at Los Angeles County Hospital in the 1960s and 70s. The forthcoming documentary “Belly of the Beast,” describes the sterilization of more than 1,400 women without consent by the California Department of Corrections between 1997 and 2013. The Buck v. Bell decision remains, says Adam Cohen, “the law of the land today.”
The racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies of President Donald Trump and his senior advisor Stephen Miller act as gasoline on the fire of abuse suffered by undocumented immigrant women. For the roughly 30,000 people imprisoned by ICE, concerted, unrelenting public pressure, to force their release amidst this deadly pandemic, is needed now more than ever.