An ICE detention-center nurse this week alleged misconduct over women being given hysterectomies against their will. Her complaint extends the list of alleged abuses that have occurred inside of immigrant detention centers around the country. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
An ICE detention-center nurse this week alleged misconduct over women being given hysterectomies against their will. Her complaint extends the list of alleged abuses that have occurred inside of immigrant detention centers around the country. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

COURIER spoke with an immigration lawyer familiar with the neglect that allegedly took place at LaSalle Corrections’ private immigrant detention centers. She claims hysterectomies are only the part of the story.

This week, a nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Georgia alleged instances of medical neglect and a high rate of hysterectomies performed without consent on immigrant women detainees in a legal complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday.

The complaint, detailing a series of poor treatment of immigrants at Irwin County Detention Center—a private detention center run by LaSalle Corrections—was filed with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) by Project South and other immigrant and human rights advocacy groups.

The whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, told Law and Crime that immigrant women were sent to a gynecologist outside of the Irwin County facility. There, the doctor repeatedly performed hysterectomies on the detainees without their consent. A hysterectomy is a medical procedure in which a woman’s uterus, or womb, is partly or entirely removed. After a hysterectomy is performed, a woman can no longer bear children or become pregnant.

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said, before noting that “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”

Wooten, who is currently represented by the Government Accountability Project, reported that many of the women who underwent hysterectomies did not understand why they were coerced into having the procedures. Many of them did not speak or understand English. Nurses assisting with the hysterectomies allegedly obtained consent from the women by “simply Googling Spanish.”

She also told Law and Crime of an incident in which the gynecologist removed the incorrect ovary from a young female detainee. The doctor was allegedly scheduled to remove the left ovary due to an alleged cyst. The detained woman, who had hoped to one day have children of her own, ended up having both of her ovaries removed. 

“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,” Wooten added. “She still wanted children—so she has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can’t bear kids … she said she was not all the way out under anesthesia and heard him [the doctor] tell the nurse that he took the wrong ovary.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Lindsay Williams said the agency does not comment on issues presented to the inspector general, but added that “anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

One Immigration Lawyer Alleges Several Instances of Neglect

To get a better understanding of what may be going on inside of LaSalle Corrections’ many detention centers, COURIER spoke with Krista Harvey—an immigration attorney based in Dallas, Texas. Nearly 90% of Harvey’s clients are held by LaSalle’s detention centers. LaSalle Corrections did not respond to COURIER’s request for comment for this story.

Harvey revealed that Wooten’s allegations sound like the gender-based violence seen in countries enduring conflict.

“The same people who are apathetic about these women’s bodies being invaded are the same ones that want smaller government and the government to stay out of their lives,” Harvey told COURIER, alluding to Republicans calling for a tougher crackdown on immigrants and immigrant detainees. “Why is it okay for the government to be big in the immigration context and violate these women that are not criminals and have not done anything to deserve that kind of treatment?”

In addition to the allegations of sterilization, the Irwin County Detention Center also faces allegations of restricting and limiting testing for the coronavirus. The legal complaint alleges the detention center’s careless handling of COVID-19 has put detainees at risk of contracting the virus, as well as refraining from providing pain-relieving and life-saving medications for inmates.

According to Harvey, inhumane treatment and medical neglect are not uncommon instances in immigrant detention centers, including those run by LaSalle. Harvey’s accusations are not the only ones to have been leveled at LaSalle Corrections in recent years.

According to a Huffington Post report from August, a complaint was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with the OIG against Winn Detention Center in Louisiana, which is run by LaSalle Corrections as well. That complaint alleges that tear gas was indiscriminately used in dormitories to quell a protest by inmates, and that even a dorm under lockdown due to the coronavirus felt the effects of the tear gas.

Vice also detailed a long list of complaints made against LaSalle Corrections—which runs both prisons and immigrant detention centers—including allegations that immigrant detainees were placed in solitary confinement. At the Richwood Correctional Center, Roylan Hernandez-Diaz died of apparent suicide after being placed in solitary confinement for several months for participating in a hunger strike.

Harvey alleges an array of medical neglect on the part of several of her clients held by LaSalle’s detention centers—including hearing loss related to non-treatment of an ear infection and missed dialysis treatments. She has not yet filed criminal complaints, but plans to do so if ICE does not rectify the issues with her clients.

Immigrant Detentions Have Gotten Longer Over the Years

Harvey told COURIER that it’s crucial to acknowledge that people detained in these immigrant detention centers are often not there for short amounts of time, and bonds to release them are incredibly expensive. 

“Once a person is placed in detention that doesn’t already have a removal order, the wait for the first court date could take about two weeks,” Harvey said. “The court date is then set two weeks out from that. Typically nothing happens at the first court date, and they wait another month for the second one. If they have relief available and can go to a ‘trial,’ or an Individual Calendar Hearing, they have to wait for another three to four months. My clients regularly spend six months in those conditions.”

Data supports Harvey’s claims and, in fact, shows that wait times for court dates are often far longer. According to the TRAC Immigration Project, which is run in part by Syracuse University and tracks conditions for immigrants in the United States legal system, pending cases have taken at long as 777 days to clear in fiscal year 2020.

If an immigrant detainee is eligible for release, cash bonds and bond companies are far less likely to help. Unlike in criminal cases, where the court only requires 10% of the bond to be paid upfront, the vast majority of bond companies require 100% of the amount to be paid in cash or cashier’s check for immigrants. In other words, unless an immigrant detainee has access to huge amounts of cash, they likely won’t be released on bond.

Harvey believes the legal complaint filed against the Irwin Detention Center is necessary to highlight some of the buried evidence of inhumane treatment in these private immigration prisons. Unfortunately, she is not optimistic about seeing any real changes in the United States’ handling of immigration detention centers coming out of it. 

“There haven’t been many positive changes since I have been in immigration law,” she added. “I’m not expecting that to change as long as the immigration judges remain the same, William Barr is still Attorney General, and [Donald] Trump stays president.”

“There Needs to Be More Public Outcry.”

Harvey said that the recent case in Georgia proves that detention centers should be hiring “actual doctors, social workers, and from industries outside of law enforcement and police-adjacent groups.”

Once detention centers start employing people trained in empathy and who see the detainees as humans, she added, there might be a positive change. “There needs to be more public outcry and immigration reform before these current practices will end.”

For Harvey, the reports of mass hysterectomies are a brutal sign for how far the US has strayed from being a beacon of freedom, democracy, and humanity for immigrants. She argues that the practice of forcibly removing the wombs of these immigrant women is “ethnic cleansing,” noting that many employed in these detention facilities believe in “the stereotype of Latinas having many children.”

She notes that it’s often hard for US-born individuals to empathize with detained immigrants, especially when certain politicians often perpetuate harmful falsehoods depicting them as “violent criminals are coming over illegally.” Much of the problem also stems from misinformation of how seeking asylum works. The legal process of asylum entails individuals—without any required immigration documents—entering the country and declaring they seek refuge due to persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries.

But even if it’s difficult to grasp the complex immigration system in the US, Harvey says it’s important to remember these immigrants are people trying to provide better lives for their families.

“They’re trying to achieve the American dream just like everyone else.”

Update (Sept. 15, 2020, 6:35 p.m.): This story has been updated with comments from ICE, clarification from Krista Harvey about the status of legal complaints related to her allegations of medical neglect, and data from TRAC’s Immigration Project.