Whistleblower Reports Poor Medical Care At Ga. ICE Facility

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (September 14, 2020, 8:24 PM EDT) -- A Georgia immigration detention center is denying proper medical care and COVID-19 testing to immigrants in custody, including by subjecting detained women to hysterectomies at high rates, advocacy organizations alleged in a complaint Monday.

The complaint, sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's civil rights office and inspector general by Project South and other advocacy groups, is based on interviews with people detained at the Irwin County Detention Center in southern Georgia, as well as the testimony of a whistleblower and former nurse at the facility named Dawn Wooten.

Wooten, represented by the Government Accountability Project and Project South, has also filed a whistleblower complaint with DHS' inspector general's office.

Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney at Project South, said in a statement Monday that Wooten's allegations "confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years: gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care and unsanitary living conditions at Irwin."

"We call on DHS to conduct an investigation into the Irwin County Detention Center in order to protect the health and safety of the detained immigrants and the workers there," she said.

The organizations claimed immigrants at the Georgia facility, run by private prison company LaSalle Corrections, have been kept in close quarters where they are unable to socially distance from one another, and are not given basic sanitary supplies, including soap and masks.

They further alleged that immigrants who report COVID-19 symptoms or other ailments are refused medical treatment and are sometimes sent back to their units without being tested for COVID-19. Wooten also reported seeing a nurse shred detainees' medical request forms.

Officers at the facility continue to transfer immigrants with either positive or pending COVID-19 test results in and out of the facility, and even knowingly deported to Mexico a person who had been diagnosed with the virus, according to the complaint.

Wooten also reported that women at the facility are referred by the same doctor for hysterectomies, a procedure in which a woman's uterus is removed, at high rates, and many do not seem to understand why the procedure was done.

"Everybody [the doctor] sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody," Wooten said, according to the complaint. Referencing the hysterectomies, one woman detained at the facility compared the facility to "an experimental concentration camp" in an interview with Project South, according to the complaint.

Wooten's allegations were first reported by The Intercept.

An ICE spokesperson said in a statement that the agency "does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General," but that ICE "takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results."

The agency also said the Irwin detention center has been found in compliance with ICE's detention standards and that ICE spends $260 million annually on health care services for detained individuals.

ICE has come under fire this year for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept through immigration detention facilities, where individuals are held for civil offenses, and infected more than 5,300 people detained there. Six have died of COVID-19 in custody, according to ICE.

There are 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Irwin center, per ICE statistics. However, the organizations claimed, based on Wooten's testimony, that the true number is likely far higher because the facility allegedly limits testing and does not report all cases to the government.

The conditions in detention centers have drawn a slew of litigation, and a number of federal judges have intervened to order ICE to release certain medically vulnerable adults and to implement basic health protocols.

A federal judge recently ordered ICE to stop transferring people in and out of a Virginia detention facility, where roughly 80% of the population tested positive for COVID-19.

In August, a California federal judge said ICE's failure to follow pandemic response guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a California facility where more than a dozen people have tested positive, including by failing to test symptomatic individuals, "violates both the CDC guidance and common sense."

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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