Dawn Wooten: I was called in one day and I was demoted. I know I was demoted because I raised questions about why. I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive.
Tanzina Vega: That was Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia who filed a whistleblower complaint this week alleging "high rates of hysterectomies at times without proper informed consent". The complaint also alleges extensive neglect for COVID-19 safety protocols at the detention center including a lack of testing for the virus and insufficient personal protective equipment for detainees and employees.
Project South is the legal advocacy group that filed the complaint, spoke with multiple detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center as well as the whistleblower about the hysterectomies. According to the detainees and Wooten, a number of women had been sent by officials at the facility to the same gynecologist and could have received hysterectomies that they were unsure were medically necessary.
John Washington is a freelance reporter and the author of The Dispossessed, and José Olivares is an associate producer with us here at The Takeaway. John and José, thanks for joining me.
John: [Spanish language]
Tanzina: John, you spoke to several Irwin detainees this week about these hysterectomies, what did they tell you? Were these people who had actually gotten the hysterectomies?
John Washington: I think it's absolutely critical to couch these procedures in the larger context of medical neglect and medical abuse that is at crisis levels in this and other immigration detention centers. The women that we spoke to specifically about the hysterectomies did not receive them but they were told that they needed to receive them and they didn't understand why.
They also told us about a number of other women that did receive them. Nobody explained to them what the procedure was going to be, what exactly it would entail, and what the results of the procedure would be. A couple of them pushed back and one of them said that the doctor became angry after she didn't want the procedure done. Nobody explained to them the followup care that they were going to receive either.
All three women were absolutely angry and indignant about the situation. One of the women was weeping, and I think that it's really important to understand that the women who did receive the hysterectomies have been difficult to find. Some of them have been deported, some of them also were telling the women that they didn't understand why they had received these operations.
Tanzina: José, you talked to the doctor who performed the procedures on these detainees. What was his response to these allegations?
José Olivares: I spoke with the doctor, his name is Hendra, yesterday. Essentially, he himself is an immigrant who is a gynecologist in a smaller hospital in Southern Georgia very close to where the Irwin County Detention Center lies. What we know about him is that in the past he has come under fire from the US governments on allegations of some Medicaid fraud in terms of some situations that were happening.
That case was settled and there was never really any real culpability that was found but he did have to pay over $500,000 to the federal governments for these allegations for the settlements. Essentially, when I spoke with him on the phone yesterday, he did confirm that he was the doctor who was performing gynecological procedures on women who came from the Irwin County Detention Center, this ICE facility. He did confirm that with me, but he was very evasive in speaking with me.
Essentially, he told me that he's only done around one or two hysterectomies in the past couple of years but he did not specify whether those hysterectomies were for women detained in Irwin. He also then, essentially, told me that what needs to happen is he makes a medical diagnosis, he recommends what procedure or what should be done and then ICE, and the Irwin County Detention Center sign off and approve any procedure that needs to take place. Then he quickly hung up the phone on me.
Tanzina: Do we know, John, how many women have had these hysterectomies and whether they were aware of the hysterectomies being performed? You made some pretty strong claims at the top saying that this is about medical abuse at detention centers, but what do we know in terms of the percentage of women who have received these and whether or not they were aware or medically necessary?
John: We don't have a hard number. Part of the difficulty is lack of access to talking to these women, even their advocates and attorneys have difficulty. One very clear example of that is that yesterday, the day after we published our first report on medical abuses, their system of communication was cut off from the inside. It was more difficult for them to make calls to the outside.
The numbers that we have are not hard. We've heard a number of estimates from both the whistleblower Dawn Wooten, advocates, and a couple of the detainee women that we have spoken with. The number that got thrown out a couple times was 20 or more than 20. That was according to Dawn Wooten. In the past six years, a couple of the detainee women cited a similar number within even a shorter time timeframe.
Tanzina: Why does that number stand out? I guess I'm trying to understand. José, if you know anything here please weigh in. In terms of the overall percentage of hysterectomies that are conducted at immigration detention centers, is that a high number, a low number? Can you help us understand in context?
José: That's why people are calling for an investigation. That's why Pelosi has also called for an investigation because we really don't know at what rate this is happening or if this is happening in other detention centers.
What one attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out to me yesterday, is that she was really surprised at how ICE and the Irwin County Detention Center were signing off on gynecological procedures that she says may not have been entirely necessary but how ICE and the Irwin County Detention Center were dragging their feet in providing masks to detainees, drag their feet when it comes to refilling inhalers, drag their feet when it comes to other medical emergency situations that could potentially be lifesaving.
That's something that also strikes advocates as odd is seeing the disparity in the way ICE is treating gynecological procedures as opposed to other also important to healthcare situations.
Tanzina: The allegations here is that ICE is prioritizing hysterectomies over personal protective equipment for COVID-19. Is that the point that you're making?
José: It's a question that advocates really want answered, is why are we seeing this disparity and who exactly is making the call for the situation?
Tanzina: What has ICE had to say about this, John?
John: They cite an impending lawsuit and they say that they cannot comment on any complaints that are filed to the office of inspector general. They have been pretty evasive about answering clearly the question. They have responded to a couple of other reporters, however, citing that there have only been, I believe it was, two hysterectomies done and that they are ensuring that all necessary medical care is provided to women but they haven't really been responding.
Tanzina: José, what do we know about the whistleblower herself, nurse Wooten?
José: Dawn Wooten, she is someone who has worked at the facility for a few years on and off. She essentially is a nurse who worked in the facility, worked with the detained population and she herself has a health problem. She has five children, she's a single mother, and she's been doing this work with detainees.
What she started noticing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is just the lack of protection and what she alleges was neglect and callousness by management in the facility when it came to dealing with detained populations who were very much at risk and who are still at risk of contracting COVID-19 and getting the virus.
Essentially, what she did is she herself began speaking up at work, recommending that staff and detainees follow the CDC recommendations for social distancing. She began very much speaking out against management when they would refuse to test detainees, when they would refuse to provide treatment to folks who were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
As a result, she was unfortunately demoted in a way that she sees and she alleges is retaliation for having spoken up internally. She's still technically employed by the facility but she was demoted from being a full-time nurse at the facility to now being only on-call or part time. She's only been receiving a few hours a month since early July.
This has been a huge economic globe to her, especially with the five kids that she has and making car and rent payments. This demotion and drastic cut of hours which she sees as retaliation has really affected her and her personal life. It eventually got to a breaking point where she said, "I can't take this anymore. I think what is happening is unjust," and she decided to speak out and blow the whistle on conditions in detention.
Tanzina: John, what happens now?
John: A number of people are calling for further investigation. The Irwin County Detention Center is certainly being scrutinized in a different way by other reporters. Both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have called for investigations. Georgia state representative has called for the doctor's license being suspended and an investigation into that specific claim of the hysterectomies.
I think it's really important to keep shining a light on what's going on for people like Dawn Wooten to be able to speak out, to be protected when they do, and for a lot of both journalists and then just American people to try to understand and try to pay attention to what's happening.
There has been a smokescreen for a long time over the conditions in these detention centers and the more we hear from not only detainees or former detainees and advocates, but about people themselves working in them like Dawn Wooten about the shocking conditions, the more we are able to push for change and push for letting people out, for example, who are susceptible to the coronavirus.
Tanzina: José Olivares is associate producer at The Takeaway and John Washington is a freelance reporter. Thanks to you both.
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