Lawyers allege abuse of migrant women by gynecologist for Georgia ICE detention center

“I was brought up by the American dream that you treat people the way you want to be treated," said a nurse who filed a whistleblower complaint.
Image: Irwin County Detention Center
Detained immigrants play soccer behind a barbed wire fence at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., on Feb. 20, 2018.Reade Levinson / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — A nurse who worked at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Irwin County, Georgia and four lawyers representing clients there are claiming that immigrant women are routinely being sent to a gynecologist who has left them bruised and performed unnecessary procedures, including hysterectomies.

The doctor, who three lawyers identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, practicing in Douglas, Georgia, has continued to see women from the Irwin County Detention Center for the past several years despite complaints from his patients.

Amin was the subject of a Justice Department investigation in 2015 for making false claims to Medicaid and Medicare. As a result, he and other doctors involved paid $525,000 in a civil settlement, according to the Justice Department.

The lawyers identified the doctor after a whistleblower complaint to the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security was filed by Dawn Wooten, who worked as a nurse inside the facility. She said in the complaint that detainees were not getting Covid-19 tests and other needed medical care. The complaint was first reported by the Intercept.

Wooten worked full time as a licensed practical nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, until being demoted in July.

The complaint cites both allegations from unnamed detained immigrants and Wooten.

The facility houses immigrant detainees in the custody of ICE, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security. It also houses inmates for Irwin County and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network filed the complaint on behalf of detained immigrants at the center and Wooten.

Wooten was demoted in July from a full-time nurse to "as-needed" after missing work because she had coronavirus symptoms. She said she believes the demotion was in retaliation for raising coronavirus protocol concerns, according to the complaint.

She also said that there was not enough active testing of the immigrant detainees for the coronavirus and that the facility was not "reporting all these cases that are positive," meaning the number of cases at the facility was possibly much higher than that reported by ICE.

Elizabeth Mathren, a lawyer who represented several women who saw Amin through her work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she was employed from 2017 to 2019, said she brought their complaints to managers of the detention facility.

"Two to three years ago, I had a face-to-face conversation with (someone in management). I was so disturbed. I begged her to get my client treatment with a different doctor. I told her I had heard from multiple people that he was rough, that they were scared to go to him, that they didn't understand what he was doing," said Elizabeth Mathren, who represented several women through her work with the Southern Poverty Law Center beginning in 2017.

Mathren she had at least one client report bruising after being examined by Amin.

But Mathren said immigrant women have continually been sent to Amin, despite concerns. The facility is privately contracted by LaSalle Corrections.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said, "LaSalle Corrections has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of inappropriate behavior in our facilities and takes all allegations of such mistreatment seriously. Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC."

In a statement, a lawyer for Amin said, "We are aware of the whistleblower’s allegations as they relate to Dr. Amin, and vehemently deny them. Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia."

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

Benjamin Osorio, another lawyer representing women in the Irwin County facility, said two of his clients received hysterectomies that they believe may have been unnecessary.

One of the women, who is of child-bearing age, was told she needed to have a hysterectomy after Amin found ovarian cysts, Osorio said. She was advised that they were cancerous, but her records indicate she was not given a biopsy to confirm the cancer, he said. In another case, he said, his client was told she had stage 4 cervical cancer and would need a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. But after her hysterectomy, an oncologist in Charlotte said she did not have cancer, according to Osorio.

Another lawyer, Sarah Owings, said she has heard of many women who are told they have ovarian cysts that need to be removed or drained.

"I don’t think this is necessarily a systemic sterilization by ICE. I think this is the kind of thing that is allowed to flourish in the course of poor oversight and terrible, inhumane conditions of confinement," said Owings.

In her complaint, Wooten said some of her patients told her they were afraid to go to a doctor they called the "uterus collector," according to the complaint.

In an interview with NBC News, Wooten said, "I had a detainee that asked me, she said, 'What is he doing Ms. Wooten, collecting all of our uteruses?' And I just looked at her puzzled because I didn’t have an answer."

"The new shocking revelations about the abuses against women's bodies must lead to the immediate closure of this horrid facility," Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, said in a statement. "ICE and the private prison corporation must be held accountable."

In a statement responding to Wooten's allegations, a spokesperson for ICE said, "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results. That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve."

In response to the lawyers' allegations about medical procedures, Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, said, "All female ICE detainees receive routine, age-appropriate gynecological and obstetrical health care, consistent with recognized community guidelines for women’s health services."

"According to U.S. Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) data, since 2018, only two individuals at Irwin County Detention Center were referred to certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities for hysterectomies in compliance with National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) standards. Based on their evaluations, these specialists recommended hysterectomies. These recommendations were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved."

She added, "Out of respect for the process of matters pending before the OIG, ICE does not comment prematurely on reported allegations, and ICE intends to fully cooperate with any resulting investigation by the OIG."

The agency said it is committed to the safety and welfare of those in its custody and its facilities are subject to regular inspections. The Irwin County Detention Center has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s performance standards, the agency said.

Shredding medical request forms

Wooten alleged in her complaint that men and women at the detention center "overwhelmingly reported not being tested for Covid-19 from March until August 18," when those in the ICE facility were given the option to be tested.

A woman reported that 100 women slept in a unit where women "coughed, had fever and other discomforts, but officers did not listen to them when they reported their health problems," and that they were never tested for Covid-19, according to the complaint.

"After demanding that the sick women be taken to the medical unit, she reported that the women were finally taken but were brought back within an hour and just given pain killers," the complaint said.

Wooten also claimed that it was common practice for a sick call nurse to shred medical request forms from detainees requesting to go to the medical unit and fabricate records such as vital signs without seeing the patient seeking help, the complaint said.

ICE said in its spokesperson's statement that its epidemiologists have been continually tracking the outbreak, regularly updating its infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to staff for the management of potential exposure among detainees.

ICE said on its website that as of Sept. 13, there were 42 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among its detainees at Irwin County Detention Center, and 5,772 in all of its facilities, with six overall deaths.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.