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Associated Press Does Not Find Evidence of Mass Hysterectomies at ICE Detention Center

Dawn Wooten

The Associated Press reported on Friday that more migrant women had come forward and alleged that they did not agree to or fully understand gynecological surgical procedures. But the AP also said that its review of the matter “did not find evidence of mass hysterectomies as alleged in a widely shared complaint filed” by Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia.

In addition, per the AP [ensuing emphases ours] Priyanka Bhatt, a Project South lawyer involved in filing the complaint, said she included the mass hysterectomy allegations in the complaint to trigger an investigation of the claims:

But a lawyer who helped file the complaint said she never spoke to any women who had hysterectomies. Priyanka Bhatt, staff attorney at the advocacy group Project South, told The Washington Post that she included the hysterectomy allegations because she wanted to trigger an investigation to determine if they were true.

“I have a responsibility to listen to the women I’ve spoken with,” Bhatt told the AP Friday. She said one woman alleged that she was repeatedly pressured to have a hysterectomy and that authorities said they would not pay for her to get a second opinion.

Project South is a social justice organization that says its legal and advocacy work “builds movement legal infrastructure with a current focus on immigrants’ rights and defending Muslim communities against state repression.”

“Project South provides direct consultation, representation, and attorney training to support communities facing discrimination, and legislative marginalization, particularly immigrants and migrants without documentation, refugees, Muslim communities, and Black young people,” the website notes.

Members of Congress and groups representing Wooten have demanded an investigation of the nurse’s claims about a “high rate” of hysterectomies on ICDC detainees. Those allegations in the whistleblower complaint were first noticed and reported by Law&Crime.

Wooten is a nurse who formerly worked full-time at ICDC. She was demoted in July, she believes, out of retaliation for raising concerns about the facility’s “unsafe work practices” and life-threatening neglect of detainees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Wooten, ICDC consistently used a particular gynecologist outside of the facility who almost always opted to remove all or part of the uterus of his female detainee patients.

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

“We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly…is he collecting these things or something…Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world,” she said, according to the complaint.

If the mass hysterectomies allegation doesn’t turn out to be true, does that mean there’s nothing to see here?

Andrew Free, an immigration lawyer involved in the investigation of procedures performed on ICDC detainees, told the AP that doctors are reviewing new records and claims by more women that are, so far, indicative of “a systemic lack of truly informed and legally valid consent to perform procedures that could ultimately result — intentionally or unintentionally — in sterilization.”

The AP cited two examples, in which the women were identified by name.

Mileidy Cardentey Fernandez

Fernandez unbuttoned her jail jumpsuit to show the scars on her abdomen. There were three small, circular marks.

The 39-year-old woman from Cuba was told only that she would undergo an operation to treat her ovarian cysts, but a month later, she’s still not sure what procedure she got. After Cardentey repeatedly requested her medical records to find out, Irwin County Detention Center gave her more than 100 pages showing a diagnosis of cysts but nothing from the day of the surgery.

“The only thing they told me was: ‘You’re going to go to sleep and when you wake up, we will have finished,’” Cardentey said this week in a phone interview.

Pauline Binam

In another case, Pauline Binam, a 30-year-old woman who was brought to the U.S. from Cameroon when she was 2, saw Amin after experiencing an irregular menstrual cycle and was told to have a D&C, said her attorney, Van Huynh.

When she woke up from the surgery, Huynh said, she was told Amin had removed one of her two fallopian tubes, which connect the uterus to the ovaries and are necessary to conceive a child. Binam’s medical records indicate that the doctor discovered the tube was swollen.

“She was shocked and sort of confronted him on that — that she hadn’t given her consent for him to proceed with that,” Huynh said. “The reply that he gave was they were in there anyway and found there was this problem.”

Doctors the AP spoke with said the removal of one of Binam’s fallopian tubes was likely unnecessary and, if the procedure happened as she claimed, was an “abhorrent” abuse of process.

“It’s established U.S. law that you don’t operate on everything that you find,” Dr. Julie Graves said. “If you’re in a teaching hospital and an attending physician does something like that, it’s a scandal and they are fired.”

The doctor referred to in the complaint, since identified as OB/GYN Mahendra Amin, told The Intercept he only performed “one or two hysterectomies in the past two [or] three years.”

He also denied performing surgeries without patients’ consent.

“Everything is wrong, and if you want to talk, talk to the hospital administrator,” Amin said.

Scott Grubman, a lawyer for Amin, has also “vigorously” denied the allegations in the complaint.

“We look forward to all of the facts coming out and are confident that, once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of wrongdoing,” Grubman said.

Amin and other doctors previously reached a settlement with the Department of Justice in 2015 after Connie Brogdon and Summer Holland filed a lawsuit “under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act and the Georgia False Medicaid Claims Act,” alleging the doctors “caused false claims to be submitted to Medicare and Medicaid.”

Project South’s Legal & Advocacy Director Azadeh Shahshahani, who represents Wooten, called for ICDC to be “shut down immediately” on Thursday.

Acting ICE Director Tony Pham said in a statement obtained by Law&Crime on Friday that Wooten has raised “very serious concerns” that “deserve to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.”

“ICE welcomes the efforts of both the Office of Inspector General as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s parallel review. As a former prosecutor, individuals found to have violated our policies and procedures should be held accountable,” Pham said. “If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”

The Government Accountability Project is also representing Wooten. Law&Crime reached out to the group for comment on the AP’s reporting.

Wooten’s co-counsel Dana Gold, the Government Accountability Project’s Senior Counsel and Director of Education, said in statement to Law&Crime that the group has “heard from multiple attorneys representing numerous women who have suffered abuse.”

“It’s no small task to ask these women to speak out, just as it’s difficult to track down women who have already been deported, or are afraid to speak out due to the fear of retribution–both personal and professional,” Gold said. “What we know for certain is that Dawn is stepping forward and calling for a full investigation into all the issues she’s disclosed.”

The attorney said that investigations of this magnitude do not happen in one business week.

“She reported wrongdoing. She did her job as a whistleblower, and she looks forward to Congress, the Inspector General, and all other relevant offices conducting a fulsome investigation that interviews witnesses, reviews documents, and finds all the facts. A complete investigation into all of her disclosures takes much longer than a business week,” Gold said.

Editor’s note: this story updated post-publication with additional comment from Dana Gold.

[Image via NBC News screengrab]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.