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Lawmakers Demand Probe into 'Horrifying' Allegations of Neglect, Mass Hysterectomies at ICE Detention Center

"These allegations are part of a larger pattern of reproductive injustices conducted by ICE officials."

Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing December 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Edelman -Pool/Getty Images)

Democratic lawmakers Wednesday called for an "emergency investigation" into allegations of medical neglect amid the Covid-19 crisis and a disturbing number of hysterectomies allegedly performed on women at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Georgia.

"The complaint submitted to your office earlier this week sets forth horrific new allegations of medical mistreatment that demand further investigation, especially allegations regarding the high number of unnecessary hysterectomies performed on women detainees at [Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC)]," Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) wrote in a letter dated Tuesday addressed to the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General Joseph Cuffari. 

"We are horrified to see reports of mass hysterectomies performed on detained women in the facility, without their full, informed consent and request that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conduct an immediate investigation," a coalition of 173 congressional lawmakers wrote in a separate letter, also sent to Cuffari on Tuesday, calling for an investigation and a briefing on the status of the probe by Sept. 25. 

Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked at the facility in question came forward to Project South, which issued the whistleblower complaint on her behalf this week. In an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC Tuesday night, Wooten echoed her statements in the complaint.

"I had several detained women on numerous occasions that would come to me and say 'Ms. Wooten, I had a hysterectomy, why?' I had no answers as to why they had those procedures," she told Hayes.

Hayes said NBC News spoke with two lawyers representing women detained at the ICE facility, and one attorney told the news outlet that as many as 15 women were "given full or partial hysterectomies or other procedures for which no medical indication existed."

Adding to a chorus of advocate voices, lawmakers pointed in their Wednesday letter to the United States' history of using forced sterilization practices on minority populations:

These reports hearken back to a dark time in U.S. history in which 32 states passed eugenic-sterilization laws, resulting in the sterilization of between 60 and 70 thousand people in the early 1900s. This practice continued for incarcerated individuals into recent times, as nearly 150 incarcerated women in California prisons were sterilized between 2006 and 2010.

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In Georgia alone, 3,284 individuals had been sterilized by the end of 1963, as the state was responsible for the fifth highest number of sterilizations in the country. This shameful history of sterilization in the United States, in particular sterilization of people of color and incarcerated people, must never be repeated. Yet, the similarities to the accounts of immigrant women and nurses in the Irwin County Detention Center today are eerily similar.

The reports of mass hysterectomies cause grave concern for the violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights of detained people. Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, their language, or their incarceration deserves to control their own reproductive choices, and make informed choices about their bodies. We request an immediate investigation into these reports. We request a response and a briefing on the status of this investigation by Friday, September 25, 2020.

According to Hayes, ICE has denied the allegations of mistreatment and of unwarranted hysterectomies, and Lasalle Corrections, the private company that runs the detention center, also refuted the claims.

"We cannot repeat our shameful history of sterilizing women of color," tweeted Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who, along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) led the coalition in demanding a swift investigation. 

In their letter to Cuffari, Maloney and Raskin noted there have been previous concerns about this particular facility, and that when staff from the House Oversight and Reform Committee visited the Georgia detention center in September of 2019, they "observed alarmingly urgent health and safety issues. In fact, Committee staff were so disturbed that they raised concerns directly with the ICDC warden during the visit."

The committee, the representatives wrote, did not receive follow-up information promised to them by the inspector general's office after the September 2019 visit, and they requested the committee be briefed on that matter as well:

When Chairwoman Maloney sent her letter to you last year, your office indicated that it would incorporate the information provided by the Committee into the office's ICE facility inspection plans and follow up with the Committee as warranted. Since that time, however, we have not received any updates on your work involving these facilities.

For these reasons, we request that you schedule a briefing this week to provide an update on your response to the chairwoman's November 2019 letter, including an update on any investigative steps or site visits that you have conducted since then. We also request that your office immediately investigate the allegations in the new complaint.

In a statement following the whistleblower complaint, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) wrote, "These allegations are part of a larger pattern of reproductive injustices conducted by ICE officials, such as forcing women to give birth standing up, shackling pregnant women, and neglecting prenatal care."

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