Salematou Sylla, 32, was deported to Guinea in 2018 after receiving medical treatment at Irwin County Detention Center, but federal investigators haven't reached out to her. (Photo provided by Sylla)
The women are in Guinea, Jamaica, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Canada. Their lives are linked by two facts: They say they were pressured to have gynecological procedures that they didn’t understand or want while detained at an ICE facility in rural Georgia. And they were deported. Now, even though three government agencies have opened an investigation into allegations of medical abuse at the privately run Irwin County Detention Center, the women fear that they and their experiences have been erased. Federal investigators haven’t interviewed at least eight women who were deported after receiving questionable medical diagnoses and treatment at Irwin, VICE News has learned. At least three other women were deported shortly after they said they spoke with investigators.These delays and deportations suggest that federal investigators are not attempting the robust investigation that more than 160 members of Congress have demanded into the Irwin facility, located in Ocilla, Georgia. While such investigations can take a year or longer, outside experts and former government officials say it’s deeply troubling that potential witnesses have been deported or, in some cases, are still facing the prospect of being kicked out of the country.
“It’s inconceivable that they would not reach out and want to interview them in-depth. You would want to interview 100 percent of them if at all possible,” said Michael R. Bromwich, a former inspector general of the Department of Justice and an attorney at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, adding that contacting potential witnesses is one of the first steps in any investigation. Three agencies are jointly leading the investigation: the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. They are charged with looking into a whistleblower complaint that accused Irwin of a pattern of “jarring medical neglect” and confusing medical care, sparking nationwide scrutiny. Experts said having all three agencies involved suggests that federal investigators are looking into the possibility of criminal charges and whether the detention center defrauded the government, among other things. The Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division specializes in hate crimes, human trafficking, and cases of police officers who have violated the law.
More than 50 women have stepped forward since the whistleblower’s complaint was published on September 14. In court records, more than 20 former and current detainees allege medical abuse and mistreatment at Irwin, ranging from psychiatric and breathing medicine being withheld to being given “stained, used underwear” and being pressured to have unwanted gynecological procedures. At least 15 women who say they were patients of local gynecologist Dr. Mahendra Amin— the doctor linked to many of the allegations of unwanted gynecological procedures—remain detained at Irwin, according to advocates. Some were nearly deported on multiple occasions. One woman, Mbeti Ndonga, was scheduled to speak with investigators in October, her legal team said. But hours after Ndonga said she wasn’t emotionally ready to answer questions and asked to speak to her legal team, she was cleared for deportation to Kenya. She ultimately talked to investigators in November, while still detained at Irwin.
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Angela Rojas Fanas, 43, was sent to Amin because of pain in her back and hips, she told VICE News. He diagnosed her with a uterine fibroid and told her she needed surgery, she said.
Mbeti Ndonga is one of at least 15 women who say they were patients of Amin and remained detained at Irwin County Detention Center.
“I felt like I was going to the vet,” she said. “He put his glove on and stuck his hand inside of me, like I was a cow.”
Rojas said she told Amin she didn’t want surgery and he gave her an injection for the pain instead. “That’s when the complications started. I spent three months bleeding. I thought my vagina was going to fall out,” Rojas said. Rojas said that while detained at the Irwin facility, she spoke once by phone with Department of Justice investigators for around 30 minutes. “I tried to tell them about my experience, but they stopped me,” she said. “Like they wanted to cover it up.”
“He put his glove on and stuck his hand inside of me, like I was a cow.”
About a week later, on October 20, Rojas was deported to the Dominican Republic, she said. ICE rejected claims that it’s actively seeking to deport women with allegations of medical abuse. “ICE is fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General investigation,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an email. It said ICE has accommodated interviews and notified investigators “about any planned transfers or removals of Irwin detainees who were former patients of Dr. Amin, and is fully supporting the efforts” to look into the women’s allegations.”In late November, lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia agreed to delay deportation proceedings for multiple women who have brought forth allegations until after President Trump leaves office in January. But the day after lawyers submitted the proposal to a federal judge, the U.S. attorney’s office tried to back out, saying “the highest levels of ICE” hadn’t signed on. The judge agreed to the deal anyway—but just this week, government lawyers again tried to renege and asked the judge to reconsider. The move underscores just how aggressively ICE is moving to try and deport potential witnesses. Once the U.S. deports someone, it’s incredibly difficult for them to return legally.Among the women deported from the Irwin facility is 36-year-old Yuridia, from Mexico.
Yuridia first saw Amin in July 2020, after she’d endured months of rib pain. Medical records indicate that Yuridia, whom VICE News is identifying only by her first name, was experiencing heavy periods and chronic pelvic pain. But in an interview, Yuridia said that her menstruation was normal and she didn’t have pelvic pain.
During that first visit, Amin performed a transvaginal ultrasound. Yuridia, a Spanish speaker, said she didn’t understand that the ultrasound wand would be inserted into her body until it was. Amin then diagnosed her with cysts, medical records show. Yuridia was sent for a second visit to Amin in mid-August. He told her that she needed surgery to remove the cysts, she said. Later that month, she underwent an operation that involved laparoscopic surgery and a dilation and curettage, or “D&C,” a procedure that includes dilating the cervix and scraping uterine tissue. Although she signed consent forms in English, Yuridia said she didn’t understand what Amin intended to do to her.“They made me feel like I was an experiment,” Yuridia recalled. After the surgery, she felt “empty inside,” she said. “I was so weak and in so much pain.” Just three days later, Yuridia was deported to Mexico.Now living with her mother and six daughters, Yuridia says that sharing her story can leave her feeling “exposed.” (Yuridia’s children are all U.S. citizens, but because no family members could care for them in the U.S., they were also sent to Mexico.) “I start feeling anxious, and my whole body starts aching,” she said. Still, over the last several months, she’s talked to multiple reporters, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mexico’s human rights commission. But she has not been interviewed by investigators from the U.S. government.
Yuridia, 36, was deported from Irwin County Detention Center just three days after undergoing gynecological surgery. She has not spoken to federal investigators. (Photo: Miguel Fernández-Flores/VICE News)
“That’s a huge red flag,” said Katherine Hawkins, a senior legal analyst for the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight who has researched medical care in ICE detention. “Generally you want to gather evidence and talk to as many witnesses as possible, as close to the incident as possible.” Leon Rodriguez, who led the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2013 to 2017 and previously worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the longer investigators wait to speak to potential witnesses, the more their memories—and potential evidence—will likely degrade. “Given the considerable risk of losing contact with potential victims who have returned to their country, it would have made sense to have reached out to those individuals very early on,” he said of the deported women. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General declined to comment for this story, citing policy that prevents the office from discussing ongoing work. The FBI also declined to comment, due to policy that prevents the agency from commenting on active investigations or from confirming an investigation has been opened. Neither the Department of Justice nor a spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections, the private prison corporation that runs Irwin, replied to multiple requests for comment.Jaromy Floriana Navarro, 28, believes she was deported in retaliation for speaking out about her treatment inside the Irwin facility.
Yuridia is now living in Mexico with her mother and six daughters, all of whom are U.S. citizens. (Photo: Miguel Fernández-Flores/VICE News)
Floriano Navarro had her first visit with Amin in March 2020, after she complained about heavy cramps, according to court records and interviews. He performed a transvaginal ultrasound on her—which, Floriano Navarro said, he never explained—and then diagnosed her with a cyst. She was scheduled to get it drained in late July. At least that’s the procedure she believed she was having. But on the day of her surgery, the officer transporting her to the hospital said she was having a hysterectomy, Floriano Navarro said. Ultimately, she said, she tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and the surgery was called off.
In mid-August, Floriano Navarro was again scheduled for a surgery—this time, she said, a nurse told her she was getting tissue scraped off her vagina, initially because she had heavy bleeding and later because she had a thick womb. Confused and afraid, Floriano Navarro refused. After she told a lawyer about her experience, her story (told anonymously) made its way into the whistleblower report.
She said staffers immediately suspected that Floriano Navarro had something to do with the report. One confronted her. “She's like, ‘Have you been talking to somebody? Did you tell somebody that we're doing illegal surgery?’”
“She's like, ‘Have you been talking to somebody? Did you tell somebody that we're doing illegal surgery?’”
Two days after the whistleblower report was published, Floriano Navarro said she was deported to Mexico, a country she left when she was 8.
Now, she works in a call center in Mexico. Her two daughters, 2 and 8, live in the U.S. with her mom. Floriano Navarro is planning to visit an OB-GYN in Mexico to see what, if anything, is wrong. Federal investigators haven’t interviewed her. “I have participated in DOJ investigations involving undocumented people where the government took the allegations seriously enough to ensure the witness and evidence remain available,” said attorney Andrew Free, who represents Floriano Navarro and other witnesses in the case. “Irwin looks nothing like those investigations. It took some time for that to sink in, but there's just no defense for their investigative decisions.” Amin has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing. His lawyer Scott Grubman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. “Dr. Amin treats all patients with care and respect, and any allegation of improper treatment is simply false,” Grubman told VICE News over email in November. “Dr. Amin continues to cooperate fully with investigators and is confident that those investigations will clear him of any and all wrongdoing.”Grubman has also previously told VICE News that Amin’s office, and the hospital where he works, have maintained consent forms for ICE detainees. VICE News has uncovered consent forms signed by women who were detained at Irwin, including one woman who was deported. But women or their attorneys have said that, despite signing the forms, these women didn’t understand or want the medical treatment they received.Once witnesses and victims are deported, it can be nearly impossible to find them, especially if they don’t have a lawyer. Spread around the world, sometimes in remote villages, they are invisible. The more time passes, the harder it is to find them. Luis C.deBaca, who worked in the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said he’s not surprised investigators haven’t reached out to deported women yet, because civil rights probes are usually lengthy and complicated. Three former officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice agreed, telling VICE News that investigators’ failure so far to interview women who’ve been deported doesn’t mean they won’t do it at some point. However, they stressed that investigators should speak to all potential witnesses—and that deporting them, particularly at this stage of the investigation, could hamper the outcome. To ensure that this type of case is successfully investigated, C.deBaca said, witnesses often need to be interviewed multiple times.“Having one’s witnesses deported out from under you really severs that necessary connection between the prosecutors and the victim-witnesses,” C.deBaca said. Agency officials have broad discretion in dealing with allegations of abuse, said James Ziglar, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 2001 to 2002. “My approach was always to say we are not deporting somebody until we know whether or not their complaint is legitimate,” Ziglar said. “But if people realize they can file a complaint and get their deportation at least delayed, then you are going to have a million complaints out there all of a sudden.”Salematou Sylla, 32, is now in Guinea, after being deported in December 2018. She has no attorney, and didn’t know an investigation into Irwin County Detention Center had been opened until VICE News reached out. But Sylla, who moved to the U.S. at 4, said she remembers her experiences with Amin clearly. She said she and other detained women were brought in shackles to see Amin, and he spent 10 minutes with each of them.
“I'm like, ‘How can you diagnose anything in 10 minutes?’ There's no way,” Sylla recalled. “And then when we shared with each other our diagnosis, we all came out like, ‘Oh, he's saying that I have a cyst.’But Sylla, who moved to the U.S. at 4, said she remembers her experiences with Amin clearly. She said she and other detained women were brought in shackles to see Amin, and he spent 10 minutes with each of them. “I would ask them, ‘Did he say anything about high blood pressure? Do you have something else?’ No, we all have cysts, we all have to get surgeries.”Medical records confirm that Sylla saw Amin on at least two occasions in fall 2018, including, in one case, to follow up on a cyst.
Sylla was scheduled for a D&C and a laparoscopic procedure on December 13, 2018, medical records show. But on December 5, Amin cleared her to travel “by ground or air,” according to one document. The next day, Sylla said she was deported to Guinea. Medical records confirm that Sylla saw Amin on at least two occasions in fall 2018, including, in one case, to follow up on a cyst.
Sylla was scheduled for a D&C and a laparoscopic procedure on December 13, 2018, medical records show. But on December 5, Amin cleared her to travel “by ground or air,” according to one document. The next day, Sylla said she was deported to Guinea. She said that federal investigators haven’t reached out to her. Some of the women who were deported are fighting to return to the U.S. Yuridia won her motion to re-enter the country based on a technicality with her green card eligibility, a rare victory for deported immigrants. But she still sometimes feels overwhelmed, afraid of what could happen next. “I will overcome what happened to me,” she said. “It is for my daughters that I go out and take a stand.”Gianna Toboni, Nicole Bozorgmir, and Ana Sebescen contributed to this story.