The Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a Georgia immigrant detention center operated by LaSalle Corrections, is allegedly subjecting immigrant women to nonconsensual hysterectomies, according to a whistleblower complaint released on Monday. The complaint, which was filed by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at ICDC, in collaboration with the activist group Project South, accuses the facility of “jarring medical neglect.”
The complaint also alleges that a high number of women at the facility have been forced to receive hysterectomies from a particular gynecologist outside the facility. “Several immigrant women have reported...their concerns about how many women have received a hysterectomy while detained at ICDC,” Project South states.
Wooten echoed these concerns, describing the gynecologist in question as “the uterus collector.” She noted that “everybody he sees has a hysterectomy––just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a [detained immigrant woman].”In some cases, these procedures were reportedly performed without the informed consent of the women.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has since disputed “the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.” According to ICE, “since 2018, only two individuals at Irwin County Detention Center were referred...for hysterectomies.” But the number of hysterectomies referred does not indicate the number of hysterectomies received. Yesterday, Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who has been in contact with attorneys representing ICDC detainees, told Vox that these reports are “likely part of a pattern of conduct.”
“[I]t appeared that, at minimum, 17 or 18 had been subjected to unnecessary gynecological procedures – often ‘with the clear intent of sterilization’ and without obtaining proper consent,” writes Vox.
The complaint also accuses LaSalle Corrections of failing to protect detainees and staff from COVID-19 by refusing to “test detained immigrants...who have been exposed to the virus and are symptomatic,” “hiding information from employees and detained immigrants about who has tested positive,” and allowing transfers of detained immigrants who have tested positive.
These reports follow a long history of violations at LaSalle Corrections, which holds more than 7,000 detained immigrants. Operating primarily in the South, LaSalle Corrections’ facilities have a documented history of abusing and mistreating detained immigrants. Its relentless pursuit of profit over all else, coupled with lack of oversight, means that neglect is the norm. For LaSalle Corrections, and many other private prison firms, this approach, unfortunately, pays off. Since Trump took office, LaSalle Corrections has opened six new facilities in Louisiana (the state with the highest incarceration rate). Last November, Mother Jones reported that in Louisiana, LaSalle Corrections “will receive roughly $136 million a year from ICE, compared to $44 million if those beds were filled by...convicts.”
Blowing the whistle on LaSalle in Louisiana
In April, two other whistleblowers raised serious concerns about another ICE detention facility run by LaSalle Corrections, Richwood Correctional Center (Richwood) in Louisiana. The whistleblowers, who were identified as "current or former detention officers at Richwood," alleged that LaSalle Corrections was not taking necessary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
LaSalle Corrections leadership refused to allow "sick and at-risk staff" to "use their personal leave in order stay away from the facility for their own protection." Further, "staff suspected of suffering from COVID-19 who had been tested were required to report for work" while awaiting their results.
The whistleblowers also reported "inadequate sanitation supplies and PPE." Also, "COVID-19 positive and symptomatic detainees [were] transported with asymptomatic staff and detainees." Detainees that tested positive for COVID-19 were "improperly housed in the same building assigned to detainees suffering from tuberculosis." This resulted in "a potential disease bomb where detainees could potentially contract two extremely dangerous diseases."
There was a high cost to LaSalle Correction's mismanagement of Richwood. At the facility, "at least 15 officers and 72 detainees have been infected with COVID-19, two officers have died and at least four hospitalized detainees have been placed on ventilators." The officers that died were initially prevented by LaSalle Corrections "from wearing masks as the virus spread through the facility."
A history of extreme neglect at LaSalle's Irwin facility
A 2017 report by the Penn State Center for Immigrants Rights Clinic highlighted the abysmal conditions at ICDC. Detained immigrants "almost unanimously reported finding objects in the food, being forced to eat rancid foods, and needing to supplement their diets by purchasing food at the commissary." Water was added to dishes to make portions appear larger and hairs in the food were commonplace.
Hygiene was also poor. Sheets, towels, and pillowcases are changed once a month and are often "returned dirty, smelly, or wet with dark water."
The immigrants were paid about $1 for a full day of work — enough to buy a one minute call on one of the facilities three phones. The immigrants were performing tasks necessary to keep the facility running. LaSalle was "able to exploit detained immigrant labor while requiring those same individuals to pay inflated prices for basic needs, such as food and personal hygiene products."
Medical treatment was substandard with several detained immigrants reporting "their medical conditions [were] either undertreated or not treated at all." The report found that "flus, colds, stomach illnesses, and skin rashes" are extremely common and receive little medical intervention.
Immigrant detention as a new profit center
LaSalle Corrections was founded by Billy McConnell, who initially "began cutting deals to build and operate jails in rural towns across the South." But as states slashed their prison populations to save money, McConnell viewed the election of Trump, and his hard-line stances on immigrantion, as a business opportunity. McConnell's facilities "now hold more than 7,000 immigration detainees."
Meanwhile, LaSalle Corrections continues to deepen its ties with ICE. A year ago, Scott Sutterfield left his role as acting director of ICE’s New Orleans field office to become an executive at LaSalle Corrections. At the time, “Sutterfield denied any impropriety in the move, arguing that he was not involved in policy setting at his previous job, which focused on overseeing the immigration deportation process and ensuring detention facilities in the region were in compliance with federal requirements,” wrote USA Today.
Yet, a former ICE official told Mother Jones that it was Sutterfield “who suggested to ICE leadership that it consider using some of the LaSalle facilities.” Now a spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections, Sutterfield recently accused Wooten and Project South of pushing “long-held political objectives.”
McConnell is unapologetic about his work in immigrant detention. "What somebody else thinks about Billy McConnell compared with what God thinks of Billy McConnell is almost irrelevant," he told USA Today, "We don't arrest 'em. We don't try 'em. I know what the laws on the books say, and I'm a guy who goes by the rules."