Congress launches inquiry into claims about gynecological procedures at immigrant facility

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Top U.S. House Democrats are investigating a whistleblower’s allegations that immigrant women in a Georgia detention center endured gynecological procedures without their consent or full understanding of the treatment that was being performed.

Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center, said women at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility “were sent to an outside medical provider to undergo gynecological procedures — including but not limited to hysterectomies—without providing informed consent,” lawmakers wrote in a letter Monday to those in charge of the facility.

In a complaint to federal officials, whistleblower Wooten said a “high amount” of hysterectomies were performed on women at the Georgia facility. A hysterectomy removes the uterus, and sometimes ovaries, meaning an individual can’t menstruate or get pregnant.

“Everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad,” Wooten said in her complaint, calling the doctor who performed the gynecological procedures “the uterus collector.”

The House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security committees are requesting documents from Tony Pham, a senior ICE official; Phil Bickham, the warden for the detention center; and Rodney Cooper, the executive director for LaSalle Corrections, a company that provides correctional staff for immigration detention facilities in Georgia, Texas and Louisiana.

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Wooten, the nurse, “has also alleged that there was repeated disregard for the safety of both employees and detainees in contravention of protocols recommended by federal authorities to control the spread of coronavirus,” lawmakers wrote. “These allegations, if true, are a shock to the conscience.”

The letter was signed by Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), as well as Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Chair Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Chair Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

Lawmakers want documents going as far back as 2015 about gynecological or obstetrical care people at the detention center or off site received, along with all communications between staff and medical providers. The letter also requested any documents about how the facility responded to coronavirus outbreaks and what measures were taken to prevent the spread.

Democrats requested those documents by Oct. 2.

Pham, ICE Senior Official Performing the Duties of Director, said in a statement that the allegations “raise some very serious concerns that deserve to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.”

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“ICE welcomes the efforts of both the Office of Inspector General as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s parallel review,” he said, referring to an ongoing investigation by the DHS inspector general’s office.

“As a former prosecutor, individuals found to have violated our policies and procedures should be held accountable.  If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”

ICE did not respond to questions about the congressional investigation.

This is not the first time the Irwin facility in Georgia has raised concerns on the Hill.

In 2019, House Oversight and Reform Committee staff visited several ICE facilities in Georgia, including the Irwin facility. Staff members wrote to DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari about their concerns that detainees were being physically and verbally abused by the facility officials.

“The Committee’s visit’s uncovered significant concerns with these facilities that would benefit from a thorough review by your office,” they wrote.

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Azadeh Shahshahani, the advocacy director of Project South Legal, said the Irwin detention facility has a long history of violating human rights and that lawmakers should familiarize themselves with the center’s history during their investigation. A 2017 report by Project South Legal, a social justice organization based in Atlanta, found dozens of reports of abuse at the Irwin facility.

“This facility needs to be shut down,” she said. “We are not talking about the actions of one individual, we are talking about the whole system.”

Shahshahani and the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that protects and advocates for whistleblowers, are representing Wooten.

“We hope that lawmakers keep the pressure on,” Shahshahani said. “We need a congressional investigation.”

Ariana Figueroa
Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.