On September 14th, 2020 a nurse, Dawn Wooten, working in the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) alleged rising rates of unnecessary hysterectomies among immigrant women. While media coverage primary focused on the hysterectomies, Project South, Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide released a supplemental report condemning a variety longstanding ICDC medical practices, ranging from medical neglect to rotten food. During the Covid-19 pandemic, accusations of medical malpractice from detainees at ICDC have only multiplied as the understaffed detention center struggles to provide basic human rights to its inhabitants.
Like many private prisons, ICDC is paid by the federal government per prisoner per day. This means private prisons are incentivized to maximize the amount of detainees they can house, resulting in overcrowded facilities and detainee quotas. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security published a memo outlining goals to detain 85,000 immigrants with detainee quotas built into private prison contracts. Legislation introduced in 2015 to prevent such quotas has stagnated. As a result, places like the ICDC are attacked with inmates during the coronavirus pandemic and those lucky enough to receive medical treatment could find themselves forced into involuntary medical procedures.
In order to obtain legitimate consent, a patient must fully understand their procedure and they must be given the opportunity to ask questions. According to whistleblower Wooten, one detained woman expressed confusion as to why they had gotten a hysterectomy. “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going,” Wooten said. Moreover, some detainees were given disparate explanations for their procedures. One woman was told by her doctor that she was going to have a short procedure to drain an ovarian cyst, while the officer transporting her to the procedure claimed she was there for a hysterectomy, and the nurse stated she was there to scrape tissue from her vagina.
Lack of clarity and understanding between doctor and patient invalidates consent, which is even more crucial between medical staff and detainees under their authority. Consent must be thoroughly regulated to protect vulnerable detainees and the ICDC has been accused of falsifying medical records, and coercing detainees to sign misleading paperwork. In addition, Wooten claimed to see shredded medical requests and medical neglect amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Under these conditions, not only has the ICDC failed to obtain proper consent, but the facility failed to provide basic medical care especially under Covid-19.
During the coronavirus pandemic response, Wooten alleged that the ICDC refused to test symptomatic detainees exposed to the virus. Wooten accused other employees of working while symptomatic and hiding positive test results, while symptom attestations were ignored and symptomatic employees were cleared for work either way. In addition, despite CDC guidelines, transfer detainees were introduced into quarantined cohorts without proper testing. According to Wooten, if a cohort had been quarantining for 10 of the required 14 days, a new transfer could be introduced into that cohort without resetting the quarantine clock, resulting in a 4-day quarantine for the transfer detainee instead of 14, potentially exposing the facility to an outbreak.
Prior to the pandemic, the quota system packed the ICDC with detained immigrants, preventing any hope of social distancing. Inmates were confronted by frustrating social distancing posters mandating 6 feet of separation while their beds sit just three feet apart. Detainees complained that food was spoiled and rotten, often times with hair, ants and cockroaches found inside. Inmates and employees were not provided with enough PPE to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Hygiene standards dropped below ICE guidelines as detainees complained of dirt and grime layering every surface. Without hygiene and nutrition, these detainees are at higher risk of infection.
According to the CDC, pre-existing conditions like cancer and immune system disorders exacerbate Covid-19 risks. Project South reported that some patients were forced to wait weeks for their medications. One detainee claimed that they were not provided with their breast cancer medication for six weeks while another detainee was not given their HIV medication for three weeks.
From hysterectomies without consent, to obfuscated Covid-19 testing and medical neglect, the ICDC has violated numerous ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards. If these allegations by whistleblower Wooten, the ICDC should be under investigation for human rights violations. The ICE Inspector General responded to Project South, stating that “In general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
Project South submitted their report to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security and advocated for a full investigation.