Here’s the worst sentence a reporter can hear, “You shoulda been here yesterday.”
That must have been the feeling California Rep. Nanette Barragán, part of a group of Congressional Democrats who went to an ICE prison in rural Georgia recently to investigate accusations of improper medical treatment of female detainees. One woman’s case was so bad, Barragan Tweeted, that other detainees she’d just talked with had “cried as they talked about her pain.” But she added, “She was released Wednesday, before [the Congressional group] arrived.”
“Released” from the privately-run Irwin County Detention Center usually means deported, or as a potential witness for Congressional hearings, gone.
Deportation was minutes away for another potential witness who alleges medical mistreatment by Dr. Mahendra Amin, the local, Douglas, Georgia gynecologist used to treat ICE prisoners. But Pauline Binam was escorted off the plane about to leave for Cameroon at the request of Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. “We need her to testify,” says Jayapal of investigative hearings she has planned.
The likely star witness is the whistleblower whose testimony lit a media firestorm, Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the detention center.
Wooten’s main beef with ICDC, as the ICE jail is known, was that it was leaving prisoners and staff vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic by failing to test for the Coronavirus, not quarantining detainees who were sick and transferring people in and out of a facility known to have some COVID-19 cases. That apparently life-threatening malign neglect resulted in dozens of infected detainees and jail personnel at the Irwin County lockup. This was also the charge her advocates at Project South were focused on, and the fact that when Wooten had done the right thing – complained in-house up her chain-of-command – she was demoted and pushed to quit her job.
The nitty-gritty of custodial irresponsibility, but not the stuff of headlines. But another part of Nurse Wooten’s complaint was front-page material – that detainees were “being subjected to hysterectomies at alarming rates without their consent.”
ICE, ICDC and the company that runs the detention center, LaSalle Corrections, Dr. Amin and Irwin County Hospital, all deny the allegations.
The Project South attorneys who filed the complaint with the Office of the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General admit they don’t know that Wooten’s charge is true. They have not themselves spoken with anyone who claims to have been the victim of an unwanted hysterectomy. But they say, they believe Wooten and other people who say they have, and they want the whole thing investigated.
It sure looks like they’ll get their wish. Not only has Rep. Jayapal promised a Congressional examination, DHS says it may authorize not one, but two, probes – one by the Inspector General, one by DHS itself.
Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.