“This place is hell…. My experience was darkness, dirtiness, muddiness. The floors—dirty. The walls—dirty. Everything was dirty.”
In 2019, Jaromy Floriano Navarro was sent to the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, where she was held for nearly a year before being deported to Mexico in September. While at Irwin, she had a distressing experience with a medical provider who treated detainees at the facility. “I met [gynecologist] Dr. [Mahendra] Amin in March. He said I had a cyst…. He told me about the process to get my cyst removed. I was going to have three little dots on my belly, and it would take 20 minutes. One hole by my belly, one by my womb, one by my vagina,” she said. “The nurse who was taking me to the hospital told me that I was going to have my womb removed. I was like, ‘What? No, that’s not right. I am going to have my cyst removed.’”
Upon arriving at the hospital for the procedure, Floriano Navarro learned that she was positive for Covid-19 antibodies and her procedure would be delayed. When she returned to Irwin, she said, she was put in isolation. A few days later, she was told that she could now have her surgery. She said, “I refused, and this made them mad. They were so mad. [They said,] ‘You stay here. You get the surgery. We’ve already paid for it.’”
Floriano Navarro began talking to other women housed at Irwin and learned that others had had similar experiences. Then on September 14 of this year, whistleblower Dawn Wooten went public with the claim that Amin had been performing an unusually large number of hysterectomies on women held at the center. “You could quote me as the one that got away,” Floriano Navarro said. Wooten, who was a licensed practical nurse at the facility, reported that several detained women told her they were given hysterectomies and did not understand why. In a complaint, she alleged that once the information about this practice spread, many detainees became wary of seeing doctors at the facility at all and other staffers began to wonder how widespread the practice was. “We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…. That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector,” Wooten said in her complaint. “I know that’s ugly…is he collecting these things or something…. Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out.”
The complaint, filed with the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by human rights groups, including Project South, quoted an Irwin detainee who had spoken with other detained immigrants who had received hysterectomies, saying that they “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.” The woman told Project South that it was as though they were “trying to tell themselves it’s going to be OK.” She added, “When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”
Since the complaint went public, multiple women have come forward with accounts of similar experiences at Irwin. One former detainee, Pauline Binam, said she had her fallopian tubes removed without her consent. Mileidy Cardentey Fernandez told The Guardian that she was told she would undergo an operation to treat ovarian cysts but she remained unsure of what procedure she actually underwent. Most recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on the accounts of 19 mostly Black and Latinx women who underwent or were pressured to undergo “overly aggressive” or “medically unnecessary” surgeries without their consent while detained at Irwin, according to a report by nine board-certified ob-gyns and two nursing experts who reviewed thousands of pages of those women’s medical records. Wendy Dowe, speaking to the Los Angeles Times, said she told Amin, “I’ve got the right to know what’s going on with me.” After surgery, she was surprised to see bandages on her stomach. She wrote to his medical office, asking, “What type of surgery did I have?”
Amin has seen at least 60 women detained at Irwin, according to a lawyer investigating the alleged wrongdoing, and is now under investigation by the DHS’s inspector general. But the problems at Irwin are hardly limited to the alleged sterilizations. The women interviewed by Project South reported horrifying conditions at the detention center as well as widespread medical neglect. In the interviews, “we found evidence of sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, lack of prenatal care for pregnant women, a lack of clean drinking water, and rampant use of solitary confinement at the facility,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South’s legal and advocacy director. “Detained immigrants who have spoken out about the conditions have faced retaliation.” A Southern Poverty Law Center report noted that an Irwin detainee was placed in solitary confinement for three days for helping another complete a grievance form.
Wooten and several of the immigrants also claimed that the facility failed to follow best practices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In the complaint, Wooten stated that Dr. Howard McMahan, the medical director at Irwin, pleaded with warden David Paulk in March to halt all transfers of individuals in and out the facility after it recorded its first Covid-19 case. Yet McMahan’s pleas went unheeded: People with Covid have been entering the facility, which has also transferred immigrants out who were Covid-positive or had been tested but had not yet received their results. Wooten and various people detained at Irwin have reported that entire dorm units are placed under quarantine for 14 days after one individual is suspected of having or is confirmed to have Covid. The staffers mix new transfers with people who are under quarantine, resulting in greater vulnerability and risk. Representative Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and an emergency physician, toured the center with other legislators after the allegations became public and said he saw, among other horrors, black mold in the shower stalls, which can cause or exacerbate serious pulmonary diseases.
The Irwin County Detention Center is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private corporation contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. LaSalle operates seven immigration detention facilities in four states; Irwin, which houses about 800 people, has long been known for its unsafe conditions. In 2017, ICE’s own review of the center found that certain areas were unsanitary and that “floors and patient examination tables were dirty.” LaSalle receives $60 a day from the federal government for each immigrant it houses, a sum intended to cover food, shelter, and medical care, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In response to the recent revelations, Project South and other local groups—including Georgia Detention Watch, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network—are gathering signatures for a petition to close the facility and to seek redress for those harmed inside it. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives has passed a resolution condemning the medical abuse and calling on the DHS to pause the deportation of people who experienced any medical procedures at Irwin and to hold the individuals involved in the procedures accountable.
The United States has a long history of reproductive violence against people who have been incarcerated or institutionalized or are otherwise seen as unfit to have children. In 1899, Harry C. Sharp, a physician at the Indiana Reformatory in Jeffersonville pioneered a program to sterilize incarcerated men. At that point in Indiana’s history, a number of social upheavals—including industrialization, urbanization, and a fear that people of color and poor white Kentuckians were encroaching on homogeneous communities—worried the state’s middle and upper classes. His solution was to sterilize those considered dangerous, particularly those with a mental or physical illness. In 1907, Indiana passed the country’s first sterilization law, intended “to prevent [the] procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” Though the law was struck down as unconstitutional in 1921, the state government estimated that approximately 2,500 people were sterilized through 1974, before the practice ended.
These sterilizations of incarcerated people were only the beginning of many similar efforts to sterilize members of other groups, including people of color and people with disabilities, as a public health intervention. From 1919 to 1952, California sterilized approximately 20,000 institutionalized people because they were deemed “unfit” or “defective.” From 1929 to 1974, at least 7,500 people were sterilized in North Carolina, most of them without their consent, because the state Eugenics Board claimed they were unfit to reproduce. Many of them were poor Black or Indigenous women, though records show that children as young as 10 were sterilized. Nor are these abuses confined to decades past. In 2013, Reveal reported that from 2006 to 2010, at least 148 inmates in two California prisons were sterilized without proper state approvals or oversight, and there may be 100 more such incidents dating back to the late 1990s.
Knowing this long history of state-sanctioned eugenics policies is the first step in understanding the significance of the allegations by Wooten and the women detained at Irwin. As Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in her seminal text Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, the idea of population control as a social good is part of the fabric of US public health policy. Roberts argues that the American project of eugenics is rooted in the enslavement of African people and the complete denial of reproductive control. For Amari Sutton, an organizer with Project South, the abuses alleged at Irwin “must be understood as the result of fascist state control and abuse of Black and brown bodies [and] the historical capitalist interest in incarceration and detainment that mirrors chattel slavery.”
Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar are calling on international agencies to conduct investigations. “Holding the Department of Homeland Security accountable for its long history of abuses is a human rights, reproductive justice, and public health imperative—one that has been put on the backburner at the expense and detriment of our immigrant neighbors,” Tlaib said in a statement.
Like prisons, immigration detention centers are often isolated spaces, hard to reach and to monitor by design. These activists and detainees are taking great risks to expose what they know. Speaking to The Nation from Mexico in October, Floriano Navarro was distraught. “I wish I was back home in South Carolina with my daughters,” she said. “It’s like I can’t breathe. The mental abuse and the depression I go through is so hard. When I’m alone and I drift into my thoughts, I think about how it felt to be there. I want you to write about the depression. It’s so hard.”
She added, “When you are inside there, it’s like you have no control of your life, it’s like they can do whatever they want to you.”