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Igor Derysh September 15, 2020 3:47PM (UTC)

A nurse at a private Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) detention facility alleged that migrants face "medical neglect" and mass hysterectomies, according to a whistleblower complaint filed by multiple legal advocacy groups.

Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, which is operated by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections, claimed that migrants at the facility face "jarring medical neglect" in the complaint filed by advocacy groups led by Project South.

 The Intercept was the first outlet to report on the complaint. 

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In addition to concerns surrounding the new coronavirus, the complaint cited multiple women at the detention facility who were allegedly subjected to hysterectomies, in which part of the uterus is removed.

"Recently, a detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done," the complaint said. "When she talked to them about the surgery, the women 'reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.' The woman told Project South that it was as though the women were 'trying to tell themselves it's going to be OK.'"

"When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," the detainee said. "It was like they're experimenting with our bodies."

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Wooten alleged that the center repeatedly used a gynecologist, who appeared to perform hysterectomies at an unusually high rate.

"Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody," Wooten said. "Everybody's uterus cannot be that bad."

Wooten described the doctor at the "uterus collector."

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"We've questioned among ourselves like, 'Goodness, he's taking everybody's stuff out,'" Wooten said. "Everybody he sees, he's taking all their uteruses out, or he's taken their tubes out. What in the world."

Many of the detained women said they did not understand why they were being forced to have the procedure, according to Wooten. 

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The complaint provided additional accounts from women who said they underwent the procedure, including one who alleged that she had not been properly anesthetized. Another women claimed that she was given three different answers when she asked why the procedure was necessary.

Wooten further alleged that the facility had underreported coronavirus cases — and knowingly placed detainees and staff at risk of infection. Her complaint, which was filed to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, alleged a "silent pandemic" at the facility, where detainees faced neglect and were refused coronavirus tests even when they had symptoms.

Wooten told The Intercept that she had repeatedly complained to management before being demoted in July from her full-time position. She alleged that the reduction in hours was retaliation for speaking out.

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Wooten, who has sickle cell anemia, claimed that she had been exposed to detainees with coronavirus — even though her doctor warned she could die if infected.

"Ms. Wooten's whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years — gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care and unsanitary living conditions," Priyanka Bhatt, an attorney at Project South, told The Intercept.

LaSalle, which operates 18 detention centers, has been accused of mishandling the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic for months. Medical workers at a LaSalle facility in Louisiana told Congress in July that the company had withheld protective equipment from staff and detainees, as well as ignored coronavirus symptoms and positive tests. A complaint filed by asylum-seekers also alleged physical abuse by staff at a different LaSalle facility in the state last month.

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Detainees at the Irwin facility who have staged hunger strikes and protests over fears surrounding the coronavirus have been met with punishment from guards, according to The New York Times. ICE reported that 31 detainees at the facility had tested positive since the start of the pandemic, but Wooten and another medical worker who spoke to The Intercept alleged that there were at least 50 positive cases by early July. More than 15 employees were also infected, Wooten said, including health services administrator Marian Cole, who died in May.

Wooten claimed that ICE bought two rapid testing machines for the facility but provided no training to staff. The machines were used just twice and stored away, according to the nurse.

LaSalle CEO Rodney Cooper said in a letter to Congress that the company was "diligent in operating our facilities at the highest level." Cooper claimed that no detainees had "succumbed" to the coronavirus, even though two guards and a medical worker had died from the virus, according to The Intercept.

ICE did not comment on the report, but the agency told Law & Crime that it "takes all allegations seriously" and deferred to the Office of Inspector General to investigate.

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"In general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve," the statement said.

Azadeh Shahshahani, a human rights attorney at Project South, told The Guardian that the groups also plan to file the complaints to the United Nations, describing the alleged treatment as "gross human rights violations" for which "the U.S. government should be held accountable."

"We are calling for people to be freed immediately," she said, "and we have been calling for this facility to be shut down for a long time."


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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Commentary: Turns out never-Trumper Lt. Col. Vindmans problem with elected governance is what set impeachment in motion

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who likely set impeachment in motion, recently declared himself a "never-Trumper" in an interview with NBC News — though he claims it's a newfound faith, and with some irony is blasting the White House for a leak.

Readers of "Abuse of Power: Inside The Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump" will find the Army officer and National Security Council official was almost certainly the source to the anonymous whistleblower (named in the book). Further, the book details how Vindman also had trouble with the notion that a duly elected president sets foreign policy.

"I think it is appropriate to question his role. You don't question his service. We thank him for his service to the nation and his service in uniform," Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in an interview for the book released last month. "But it is appropriate to question his testimony and his participation in this. We have finished this entire thing, and no one knows yet who is the whistleblower."

Indeed, during his House Intelligence Committee testimony, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) asked, "Lt. Colonel Vindman, did you discuss the July 25 phone call with anyone outside the White House on July 25 or the 26, and if so, with whom?"

Vindman answered: "I spoke to two individuals with regards to providing some sort of readout of the call."

Nunes asked the obvious follow-up question, and Vindman responded, "Department of State, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, who is responsible for the portfolio of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine and an individual in the intelligence community."

Nunes, the committee's ranking Republican, asked for the intelligence agency before committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) cut him off. "I want to make sure there is no effort to out the whistleblower," Schiff said.

The oddity was that Schiff and Vindman professed they did not know who the whistleblower was. Yet, Schiff feared Vindman would reveal the identity of someone the lieutenant colonel didn't know.

"When you watched the testimony in the House, it was interesting to see how Adam Schiff tried to block Alexander Vindman from answering questions," Blackburn said to me. "He admitted that he had talked to people outside of the White House. And, then Schiff would not allow him to answer who those individuals were."

Based on Vindman's testimony, it was fairly clear the whistleblower either got the information from Vindman or someone who talked to Vindman about the July 25, 2019, call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Odd twist

So it's an odd twist that during his NBC News interview, Vindman accused the White House of leaking information to congressional Republicans about the Ukrainian government offering him a job as the country's defense minister.

During the same interview aired Monday, Vindman said of the Trump-Zelensky conversation, "I suspected, as soon as I heard the call, that if this became public that the president would be impeached." What a coincidence that it became public after Vindman talked to someone in the intelligence community who happens to be as anonymous as the whistleblower.

Vindman added to NBC, "It seemed wrong, it seemed corrupt, and frankly I suspect that it could have been criminal." Even this was a departure from his House testimony, where he declined to say the call constituted bribery. This came as Democrats tried to use bribery in rhetoric before realizing they had too weak a case when it wasn't clear if Trump was supposedly bribing Zelensky or Zelensky was supposedly bribing Trump.

Before Vindman's public testimony where he nearly admitted to informing the whistleblower, it was Vindman's secret testimony in the SCIF that Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican and certainly no Trump loyalist, said "crystalized" the impeachment debate for him.

"I couldn't look away" from the Vindman SCIF testimony, Massie recalled in an interview for "Abuse of Power."

"Lt. Col. Vindman could never allow the elected government to get in the way of his policy goals," Massie recalled. "He was agitated that the president didn't follow his talking points."

Vindman told the three House committees behind closed doors he began to get uncomfortable when Trump veered from talking points.

"I started to get, I guess — this was not in the preparational material that I had offered," Vindman said.

Vindman went on to say, according to the transcript of the SCIF testimony, "he's the president of the United States, he can sets [sic] the policy — but I kind of saw increasing risk as we moved on."

Massie said he heard Vindman say, "kind of sets the policy," not "can sets the policy." That makes a big difference to a constitutionalist like Massie, who added, "I was certain I heard 'kind of.' They could have screwed it up. I'm not certain they didn't change it deliberately." Either way, Massie's memory would be grammatically correct.

Vindman's transparent focus on talking points were ultimately telling of what only the third presidential impeachment in American history really boiled down to — a policy disagreement.

"This is why the whole thing is a policy difference. He was upset with the president, that the president had twice chosen to not follow his talking points," Blackburn said of Vindman. "This is something that upset him. And the commander-in-chief has the ability to set foreign policy."

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