Medical Disaster: Trouble in ICE Detention Centers


Photo courtesy Dallas Morning News

A nurse of Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center recently filed a whistleblower complaint alleging medical neglect and abuse, including a lack of COVID-19 precautions and questionable hysterectomies performed on women. This complaint, as well as previous whistleblower reports, findings of medical neglect, and poor living conditions at ICE detention centers, reveal the troubling state of healthcare in these facilities. 

Among these accusations, perhaps the most horrific is the report that an Irwin County physician, Dr. Amin, performed unnecessary hysterectomies and gynecological procedures on women without their consent, earning himself the gruesome title, “uterus collector.” According to The Washington Post, attorneys representing these women say that their clients did not fully understand or agree to the gynecological treatments and hysterectomies they received from him. 

One former detainee, Pauline Binam, had a fallopian tube removed without her consent.  Dr. Amin, who has never been board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, claimed he noticed the defective fallopian tube while performing a different surgical procedure and decided to remove it at that moment without consulting the patient.  Another woman had a cyst on her left ovary, but when she awoke from surgery, the physician had removed her right one. She later had both ovaries removed, leading to a total hysterectomy (Alvarez). These women were not the only women to receive sterilization procedures without consent. Representative Jaypal said “There may be at minimum 17 to 18 women who were subjected to unnecessary medical gynecological procedures from just this one doctor, often without appropriate consent or knowledge, and with the clear intention of sterilization” (Miroff).

One possible reason these sterilization procedures were performed without consent is the fact that  Dr. Amin did not have translators present to communicate to these women what was about to occur. This language barrier is a consistent problem with ICE medical care for detainees. 

ICE not only failed to communicate the extent of these procedures to women, but it also failed to make Irwin County Detention Center follow routine medical standards, neglecting those who needed medical attention. According to Eunice Cho, a staff attorney at the ACLU, the medical care provided by ICE facilities is poor and “raises concerns across the board.” In an interview with The New Yorker, when asked about the medical care in these detention centers, she responded by saying that it is understaffed and there is a lack of responsiveness to people with chronic-care issues. She also said that because many of these southern facilities are located in rural areas (like Irwin County), they are far from metropolitan areas with medical infrastructure. This includes emergency care, so when emergency care is needed, it is often too late. She described how detainees can go for months without receiving care for life-threatening conditions. She reported that communication is so poor that doctors often use bilingual detainees to communicate with their patients, risking miscommunication and breaching patient confidentiality. She explained some detainees have no understanding of their condition due to this language barrier.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, physicians who filed similar whistleblower complaints against ICE facilities discussed the medical ethics of working under ICE. They noted the trauma and mental health issues inflicted upon detainees by ICE and the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy when it comes to the separation of families at the border. The fifteen physicians each believed that ICE had violated the human rights of immigrants and engaged in abusive behavior toward them, including the infliction of trauma upon detained children. One of the physicians commented, “In 10 investigations of family detention centers the inspectors conducted over 4 years, they identified a ‘high risk of harm’ to migrant children housed at such facilities. They concluded, “In our professional opinion, [forcible family separation] was an act of state sponsored child abuse whose specific consequences will significantly threaten the children’s health and safety…. ” The border situation has created an ethical dilemma for doctors who abide by the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva which states, “I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped thrust detainee healthcare issues into the spotlight. The nurse whistleblower at Irwin County Detention Center not only called out Dr. Amin in her complaint, but she also accused ICE of failing to protect detainees from COVID-19. According to NPR, she accused the facility of  insufficient COVID-19 testing, withholding test results, underreporting COVID-19 cases, allowing sick employees to continue working, and deporting sick detainees. Irwin was not the only facility accused of these practices. There were similar complaints made against the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana. Both of these facilities are privately owned by La Salle (Treisman).  

While these issues were already problematic, the expansion of immigration detention under the Trump Administration and the pandemic worsened this situation. Federal investigations of ICE are well underway and evidence has continuously shown that the health care provided by many of these detention centers is inadequate, neglectful and abusive.