For months, women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., approached nurse Dawn Wooten asking questions about the procedures they were being forced to undergo at the facility.
One woman inquired about a particular doctor, who had developed a reputation among the women as being a “uterus collector.”
“Does he collect uteruses?” she asked Wooten in earnest.
Wooten, describing the exchange to MSNBC, said when she asked the patient what she meant by that, the detained woman responded, “Everyone I’ve talked to has had a hysterectomy.”
“You just don’t know what to say,” Wooten said.
Wooten now stands at the center of a massive firestorm around widespread medical neglect at the facility, managed by a private prison company, LaSalle Corrections, to house immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Wooten filed a whistleblower complaint on Monday about the facility, including allegations of medical personnel performing mass hysterectomies on women. According to the complaint, the women reported being “confused” about why the procedures were being done.
As The Washington Post reports, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demanded a congressional probe into the conditions at the detention center.
“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,” said Pelosi. “This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought.”
This history is long and widespread, but as many academics and reporters have pointed out, it is not distant. Latinas in Los Angeles were receiving unwanted sterilizations as recently as the 1970s. The incarcerated are especially vulnerable to being coerced into these procedures—in 2014, a Virginia man agreed to have a vasectomy in exchange for a lighter child endangerment sentence. To put it in stark terms, these “agreements” are a form of eugenics. And if mass hysterectomies were performed on detained migrants, as Wooten alleges, it’s a racist experiment made possible through American taxpayers.
It’s also no accident these cases center around nonwhite, vulnerable populations, say human rights and civil rights organizations.
“We know that Black and Brown people are disproportionately targeted and detained by ICE,” wrote the Black Mamas Matter Alliance in a statement emailed to The Root. “For example, though Black people are only seven percent of the non-citizen population in the US, they make up 20 percent of the total facing deportation.”
The organization also noted that a substantial proportion of recent migrants are women and children seeking asylum.
“Racial profiling in targeting and detainment, denial of medical care, and coercive surgical practices constitute specific human rights violations which further compound those experienced in the countries these asylum seekers are fleeing.”
While the invasive procedures are the most jaw-dropping of the accusations, they are by no means the only violations Wooten has outlined.
Accusations in Monday’s complaint include: refusing to test detainees for COVID-19, shredding medical requests submitted by detained immigrants, fabricating medical records, allowing employees to work while symptomatic and awaiting COVID-19 test results, withholding information from detainees and employees about who has tested positive, underreporting COVID-19 cases, and allowing the transfer of detained immigrants, including those who have tested positive for the virus.
Even before coming forward with her complaint, Wooten said she has been retaliated against. A licensed practical nurse, Wooten was demoted from full time to “as needed” in July, ostensibly because she missed work while waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test.
But Wooten believes that the actual reason her status changed had more to do with her challenging detention center officials about the care the detained migrants were receiving, NPR reports. Leading up to her demotion, Wooten said she was “asking hard questions about testing detained immigrants for COVID-19 and warning officers when detained immigrants they are in contact with have tested positive.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Wooten called for attention to be brought to the ICDC, and for management to be changed.
“As a nurse, I took an oath that my life … was no longer my life, it was the lives of others,” she said. “And until you see through the lives of others, and you experience through the lives of others, there’s no concern and there’s no regard.”