A complaint by an advocacy group has accused an ICE detention centre in Georgia of practising hysterectomies on several women and "jarring medical neglect" during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A whistleblower has accused an immigration centre in the US of performing hysterectomies on immigrant women, refraining from testing detainees for the coronavirus and exercising poor hygiene practices, according to a complaint by a non-profit organisation. 

The facility in Ocilla, in the state of Georgia, houses male and female detainees for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as inmates for the US Marshals Service and Irwin County.

The complaint said that evidence raised concerns over the rate at which hysterectomies, an operation involving the removal of all or part of the uterus, are performed on immigrant women at the centre. 

Detention centres have become a source of contention in the US with roughly 31,000 detainees across the country jammed into unhygienic facilities with inadequate access to food, water and other basic needs.

The document by Project South to the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog, relies on the accounts of Dawn Wooten, who worked full-time as a licensed practical nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center until July, when she was demoted to work as needed.

While the 27-page complaint filed by advocacy group Project South quotes unidentified detainees extensively, it also includes detailed comments from Wooten. The complaint says Wooten was demoted after missing work with coronavirus symptoms, an act she believes was a simple retaliation for raising questions about addressing Covid-19

Wooten says Hispanics receive the worst treatment in the facility, partly due to the language barrier. Medical care is often forgone due to a lack of understanding of the various medical conditions from which the detainees suffer. 

Here, we take a look at the conditions with which detainees are reportedly required to live:

“The uterus collector:” hysterectomies galore 

Wooten calls a gynaecologist who works outside the facility, “the uterus collector.”

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady [detained immigrant woman]. She was supposed to get her left ovary removed because it had a cyst on the left ovary; he took out the right one. She was upset. She had to go back to take out the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy,” the complaint quotes Wooten as saying. 

It is unclear whether there was any consent for the procedures, but Wooten claims the women told her that they did not understand why the procedure had had to take place at all, and in some cases, notice of the operation was communicated to them through Google Translate. 

“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,” Wooten said in the complaint. 

A detained immigrant told Project South that she had discussions with five women who were detained between October and December 2019. They all had a hysterectomy but they did not appear to understand the reasons behind it. 

“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies,” Project South quoted the women as saying. 

Another immigrant who underwent the procedure said three different individuals gave her separate explanations of what the procedure entailed, something that made her feel as though people were trying to experiment recklessly with her body. When she raised objections to the operation, she said the nurse became agitated and angry. 

Detained immigrants play soccer behind a barbed wire fence at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, February 20, 2018
Detained immigrants play soccer behind a barbed wire fence at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, February 20, 2018 (Reuters)

Covid-19 unchecked: “We are exposed to the virus” 

As of Sunday, 42 detainees at the facility had tested positive for the virus, according to ICE. Nationwide, 5,772 inmates were confirmed as having Covid 19.

However, Wooten told The Intercept the real number in the facility is more likely to have been at least 50 in early July. 

In the complaint, she alleged that there is no active testing, not all cases are being reported and that nurses have ignored detainees reporting symptoms of the virus. 

A video released in mid-April, when virus numbers were mounting in the US, showed various female detainees pleading for help. They said that there was little medical care provided to them to protect or treat them for the virus and they were consigned to making masks out of socks due to lack of personal protection equipment. No social distancing measures were implemented despite 50 of them being crammed into a cell.

It all alleges that medical staff at the centre refuse to test detainees for Covid-19; they also shred medical documents, fabricate them and even allow employees who exhibit virus symptoms to work while they await test results. 

The complaint said officers were allowed to enter and leave the facility without protection.

Unsanitary conditions: “Not equipped for humans” 

“This is the dirtiest facility I have ever been in: everything is dirty; one shower for more than fifty people; one bathroom for all of us; I don’t even know how to give more details because it is all nasty, really nasty; only God is taking care of us here,” one detainee is quoted as saying in the complaint. 

Other immigrants there say that their food, which is spoiled and impossible to keep down, is infested with cockroaches and ants. 

A detainee was reported as saying there were no cleaning supplies with which to clean cells, resorting instead to using shampoo and personal clothing items.  

A 2017 investigation by Homeland Security reported that medical examination rooms did not meet ICE standards, with dusty spaces and overfilled waste containers. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies