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Whistleblower In Georgia Claims High Number Of Hysterectomies At ICE Facility

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 16, 2020 9:32 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new whistleblower complaint says an immigrant detention center in the state of Georgia failed to keep detainees and staff safe from COVID-19. But there is an even more damning allegation. It charges that an outside doctor performed unnecessary hysterectomies on women being held at the Irwin County Detention Center. And a note, this report includes a description that some may find disturbing. Susanna Capelouto with member station WABE in Atlanta is following this story and joins me now. Susanna, thanks for being here. This complaint was filed by a nurse who worked at this private ICE facility, right? What did it say?

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: Yes. It was submitted as a whistleblower complaint to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general by the advocacy group Project South. It's 27 pages long. It talks a lot about how the Irwin County Detention Center in rural South Georgia does not follow CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19, that it's not keeping employees and staff safe. There's a lack of personal protective equipment. There's a lack of hygiene, things like that. And these are issues immigrant advocates repeatedly have brought up about other facilities.

But this report also mentions a completely new complaint, you know, where Project South gathered comments from immigrant women at the facility. And they're expressing their concerns about how many women at Irwin get hysterectomies. Now, this is then backed up by comments from Dawn Wooten. She's the nurse and whistleblower behind the report. And she said that she and others at the facility questioned among themselves why an outside doctor, quote, "takes everybody's stuff out. That's his specialty, he's the uterus collector." Now, the doctor is not named in the report.

MARTIN: But as you note, we do know the name of the whistleblower, Dawn Wooten. What more do we know about her?

CAPELOUTO: Well, she's worked at the Irwin County Detention Center off and on for several years. Her latest stint was from October to July. And she came to Atlanta yesterday to give a statement in front of the ICE office here. She did not address her comments about the hysterectomies and did not answer questions. But she said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAWN WOOTEN: I've seen the conditions inside the facility throughout times passing. I decided to become a whistleblower after this last round with COVID-19. I myself suffer from sickle cell disease - underlying condition - and had been told that if I contracted the virus that I probably would not live. I single-parent five children alone.

CAPELOUTO: She said she started asking questions about why detainees were not tested and complained that there was not enough PPE for staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOOTEN: I was called in one day. And I was demoted. And I know I was demoted because I raised questions about why. Inside of a silent pandemic, I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive. We have families.

CAPELOUTO: Now, ICE records show about 42 cases of COVID-19 at the facility. It houses about 650 immigrant detainees.

MARTIN: How is ICE responding to this?

CAPELOUTO: Now they issued a statement and said that the accusations will be fully investigated by an independent office. However, they vehemently dispute the implication that the detainees were used for experimental medical procedures.

MARTIN: And now we know House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked for an investigation.

CAPELOUTO: Yes, she is. And also, locally, Democrats here are outraged. They asked for investigations. And our governor's office says they've reached out to the Department of Homeland Security for more information. And there are a lot of calls to find out what's behind the report.

MARTIN: Susanna Capelouto of member station WABE. Thank you.

CAPELOUTO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.