Reports of hysterectomies and other gynecological surgeries, performed without consent on immigrant women detained by ICE, echo dark moments in our history when women of color, incarcerated women, and women with disabilities were targeted for involuntary sterilization.
In a complaint filed with the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, Nurse Dawn Wooten describes serious and ongoing medical abuses at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. Horrific as they are, nonconsensual gynecological procedures are not the only egregious abuses reported. The denial of medical treatment and abuse of immigrants detained by ICE are unfortunately not isolated occurrences.
Inadequate medical care reports
Faulty and inadequate medical care is pervasive in ICE detention, whether detainees are held in county jails or in private, for-profit detention centers. During the pandemic, there have been credible reports of inadequate medical care from:
- Yuba County Jail in California, where detainees staged a hunger strike in protest of conditions described by an attorney as “awful under normal circumstances, and now they’re outrageously abysmal and dangerous for people.”
- Otay Mesa Detention Center, run by CoreCivic, where 40-year U.S. resident Carlos Escobar Mejia, a 57-year-old amputee, contracted COVID-19 and was denied treatment for weeks before finally being removed to the hospital, where he died.
- El Valle Detention Center and Port Isabel Detention Center, in Texas, where a detainee has been denied needed surgery and rehabilitation and has now contracted COVID-19.
- Otero County Processing Center, a private, for-profit operation in New Mexico, where detainees had inadequate cleaning supplies, sheets went unwashed for a month, social distancing was impossible, and officials refused an offer of help from the New Mexico Department of Health.
- The Farmville, Virginia, center run by the private, for-profit Immigration Centers of America, which turned down repeated state offers of help with testing and then had the worst COVID-19 outbreak reported in any ICE detention center. By August, 259 of 298 detainees were positive for COVID-19, and a 72-year-old Canadian detainee died.
Sherburne County complaints
In Minnesota, immigrant detainees in Sherburne County Jail say they have been refused COVID-19 testing. Minnesota county jails holding immigration detainees generally lack adequate medical care for detainees with mental health issues and have denied medication to treat mental health. Minnesota jails also have used segregation — isolation for 23 hours per day without access to books or other materials — as punishment for complaints.
Even before the pandemic struck, medical care was denied to seriously ill and dying detainees across the country. In January, immigrant detainees held in Essex County Jail in New Jersey reported being prescribed Bengay for a broken rib, being denied access to their own medical records, and being denied treatment. A year ago, a CNN report documented denial of care in a Colorado facility where medical care was provided by Wellpath, a private, for-profit contractor. In 2018, both a whistleblower complaint and news reports documented serious failures of medical care in ICE detention centers.
An urgent human rights issue
These reports are the tip of the iceberg. The terrible medical care provided in private detention centers and in county jails is an urgent human rights issue that has been highlighted by COVID-19, but has been ongoing for years. The hysterectomies that took place in Irwin County Detention Center serve as one more horrible example of the kinds of medical malpractice allowed to happen across detention systems because of lack of oversight by ICE and lack of concern for basic human rights and dignity.
We therefore call for:
- an immediate congressional investigation of the invasive gynecological procedures and other medical abuses at Irwin County Detention Center and other abuses already reported and documented;
- abolition of private prisons and detention centers;
- accountability and transparency from ICE regarding COVID-19 testing and other medical treatment of detainees in county jails and other detention facilities;
- at a minimum, full compliance with ICE’s 2019 Medical Standards; and
- prioritizing release of immigrant detainees rather than indefinite civil detention.
Veena Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
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