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US nurse alleges ‘hysterectomies on migrant women’

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The federal complaint was filed on behalf of a whistleblower nurse and detained immigrants

Advocacy groups have filed a complaint against a migrant detention centre in the US, alleging medical neglect and a lack of virus safety measures.

The complaint condemns the practices and conditions at the private Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.

It is based on the allegations of a whistleblower, a nurse identified as Dawn Wooten.

She worked at the centre, which houses immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

As part of her complaint, filed on Monday, Ms Wooten expressed concerns about the high number of hysterectomies performed on Spanish-speaking women at the centre.

The nurse said detained women told her they did not fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy – an operation involving the removal of all or part of the uterus.

The complaint also alleges “jarring medical neglect” during the coronavirus pandemic, including a refusal to test detainees with symptoms and fabricating medical records.

“I became a whistleblower, now I’m a target,” Ms Wooten said at a press conference on Tuesday. But, “I’ll be a target anytime”, she said, rather than staying a part of what she called an “inhumane” system.

Speaking to reporters, Ms Wooten alleged gross misconduct at the centre with respect to Covid-19 precautions, and said she was demoted after protesting the conditions and staying home while symptomatic.

Project South, the Georgia Detention Watch, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network filed the complaint on behalf of detained immigrants and Ms Wooten.

The complaint has been filed with the watchdog that oversees the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for ICE. According to campaigners, there are between 500 and 800 individuals at the centre currently, where bed capacity is 1,200.

In statements released on Monday, ICE said it was taking the allegations seriously and was “firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody”.

The agency told the BBC that “anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate scepticism they deserve”.

In response to allegations about Covid-19 safety, an ICE spokesman said: “ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”

The BBC has contacted LaSalle Corrections, the private company that runs Irwin County Detention Center, for comment.

What does the complaint allege?

The complaint details “jarring accounts from detained immigrants and Ms Wooten regarding the deliberate lack of medical care, unsafe work practices, and absence of adequate protection against Covid-19”.

It summarises the disclosures Ms Wooten made to the DHS’s watchdog, and quotes unidentified detainees extensively.

Allegations included refusal by the facility to test symptomatic detainees, failing to isolate suspected cases, and not encouraging social-distancing practices.

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The complaint has been filed with the watchdog that oversees the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for ICE. File image

In a written testimony submitted to Congress in July, LaSalle Corrections said its facilities had been tracking the outbreak “regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols”.

The complaint also said that Ms Wooten and other nurses were alarmed by the “rate at which the hysterectomies have occurred” at the centre.

Ms Wooten alleged that one doctor removed the wrong ovary from a young detainee and that “everybody he sees has a hysterectomy”.

“We’ve questioned among ourselves like, goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…That’s his speciality, he’s the uterus collector,” she said in the complaint.

One detainee, interviewed by Project South, likened the centre to “an experimental concentration camp”, adding: “It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

Other allegations include delaying medical care for detained immigrants. Ms Wooten alleged that it was “common practice for the sick call nurse to shred medical request forms from detained immigrants”.

Project South lawyer Priyanka Bhatt said on Tuesday there have been reports about issues surrounding women’s health at the facility going back several years, including lack of prenatal care.

Allegations of unsanitary conditions at the centre’s medical unit were included in the complaint too. In a letter, another immigrant described the medical unit as being “dirty and with animals like ants and insects, with only one bed, toilet and sink”.

Azadeh Shahshahani, a human rights attorney at Project South, called on the DHS to carry out an immediate investigation into the allegations.

“For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center,” she said. “Ms Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years.”

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