The moment she removed the bandages from her operation, A. realized, to her surprise and horror, that her belly button was gone.
A. was being held in the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, when she was told she needed gynecological surgery to remove ovarian cysts. VICE News has agreed to withhold her name.
The procedure was never fully explained to her, she says in an interview with VICE News. Even now, she has lingering questions about what really happened, including why the procedure involved turning her once-protruding belly button into an indentation.
“This is not what I signed up for,” A. recalls thinking.
A. is one of five women who say they underwent gynecological surgery they either didn’t want or did not fully understand while detained at the Irwin County Detention Center, which is run by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections and houses immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
These accounts follow the release of a bombshell whistleblower complaint on Sept. 14 that alleges a pattern of “jarring medical neglect” and confusing medical care at the Irwin facility, as well as a disproportionately high number of hysterectomies. The whistleblower, an Irwin nurse named Dawn Wooten, suggested that one doctor had performed several hysterectomies on women who did not know why they received them.
VICE News has reviewed medical records for three of the five women whose accounts are shared in this story. Those records link their procedures to a local gynecologist named Dr. Mahendra Amin. He has denied any wrongdoing.
“We are aware of the whistleblower's allegations as they relate to Dr. Amin, and vehemently deny them,” Amin’s lawyer, Scott Grubman, wrote in an emailed statement to VICE News. “Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia.”
Grubman declined to answer a list of specific questions for this article. VICE News did not verify allegations that widespread hysterectomies occurred at Irwin.
Wooten’s complaint has set off an investigative scramble among immigration lawyers, journalists, and members of Congress to get to the bottom of what really happened.
A spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections declined to answer a list of questions for this story, citing company policy. “We can assure you the allegations are being investigated by an independent office, and we are confident once the facts are made public our commitment to the highest quality care will be evident,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Also, the negligence, reckless disregard, and malicious intent of others to advance a purely political agenda will be clear.”
In a statement, ICE Acting Director Tony H. Pham said the allegations in “the whistleblower complaint raise some very serious concerns that deserve to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.”
“As a former prosecutor, individuals found to have violated our policies and procedures should be held accountable,” Pham said. “If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”
“We are not an experiment”
A. says she initially sought medical help for menstrual bleeding and pain while detained at Irwin. After an ultrasound, she says she was told she had three ovarian cysts, including one the size of a golf ball, and needed an emergency procedure.
“They said they were going to pop the cyst and drain it, and that was it,” A. recalls.
She says she only learned on the morning of her operation, from a male nurse, that she would need to be put under anesthesia for surgery.
“And then I'm like, ‘Wait, I'm having a surgery?’” she says. “No one ever asked me if that's what I wanted.”
After awakening from the procedure, A. says she was surprised to find surgical wounds on her bikini line and around her pelvis. A. provided VICE News with photos of her torso from before and after her operation.
Medical records reviewed by VICE News confirm that A. had a procedure known as a D&C, or dilation and curettage, which involves dilating the cervix and scraping the uterine lining. A doctor who spoke to VICE News said that such a procedure, which is performed transvaginally, would not account for her deformed belly button or other surgical wounds. But the records may be incomplete.
After the surgery, A. complained numerous times to Irwin staffers about pain and excessive bleeding, to the point that she had to change her pad about every half-hour, the records show. She wasn’t given antibiotics until weeks later.
“I was basically taking care of it myself,” she says. A. went back to Amin’s practice twice in the six months following the surgery, according to her medical records.
Mileidy Cardentey Fernandez, a 39-year-old woman from Cuba who remains detained inside the Irwin facility, also says she had a gynecological procedure that she doesn’t understand.
Cardentey tells VICE News she requested medical attention after realizing her period was late and was told that an examination revealed cysts on her ovaries.
She says that she was initially told that she'd be given pills that would dissolve the cysts — but that she never got the pills. After a follow-up, she recalls, a doctor told her that the cysts had grown, and that the solution was to have surgery.
She says she wasn’t given a consent form to sign and that the medical staff spoke to her in English, a language she doesn’t speak well — leaving her with only a hazy understanding of her operation. Cardentey says that in response to her request for a translator, a young woman was brought in who spoke some Spanish. But she says this woman didn’t explain the surgery.
Cardentey was told she’d have just one incision, but instead she says she woke up with three. She was told something about removing a tumor from her “left tube,” she says, but she’s unsure what that meant.
She says she’s still in pain from her operation. (A doctor briefed on the case by VICE News said this could be a normal side effect, although they would need more information to be sure.) And despite requesting her full medical records multiple times, Cardentey says she still hasn’t received them.
“We are not an experiment,” Cardenetey told VICE News in a phone call from Irwin. “We are women that have human rights.” Cardentey fears what might happen to her, because she's speaking up while she’s still detained at Irwin.
“I am scared,” she says. “I know that the battle that awaits me inside the facility isn’t going to be easy.”
Cardentey still has her hospital bracelet, according to her lawyer Alexis Ruiz, which lists the date of her procedure, Aug. 14, 2020, and her doctor’s name: Amin.
Partial medical records reviewed by VICE News indicate that Cardentey was scheduled for an appointment with Amin, on Aug. 4, 2020. The records don’t cover an appointment on Aug. 14th, or the details of any surgical procedure.
Maria, a 53-year-old woman who was detained at Irwin before being deported to El Salvador in April 2018, has also struggled to get a hold of her medical records, according to her lawyer, Benjamin Osorio.
Maria, who speaks Spanish, underwent three surgeries while she was detained at Irwin. None were fully explained in her native language, Osorio says.
After one surgery, Maria woke up with 16 stitches in her abdomen; a fellow detainee told her that her uterus had been removed, her lawyer says. VICE News was unable to obtain Maria’s medical records, and could not determine the identity of her surgeon.
Osorio also represents another former Irwin detainee who, he says, was diagnosed with cancer. Osorio says this woman had two procedures: In July 2019, she had a D&C. About a month later, she received a hysterectomy, her lawyer says. VICE News was not able to review the woman’s medical records, but Osorio says that Amin performed the hysterectomy.
“She felt like she was coerced and pressured. She felt like she didn’t have an option,” Osorio says, adding that his client wasn’t presented with any alternative treatments. “It just seemed like, ‘This is what we’re doing, you don’t have a choice.’”
Pauline Binam, 30, the first woman to go public with claims about her experience in Irwin, was released from an ICE detention facility on Saturday.
In 2019, after nearly two years in ICE custody, Binam was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, according to her lawyer, Van Huynh, and her sister, Nicole. Binam was told she needed a D&C, her lawyer and sister say. After the procedure, the doctor who performed the operation told Binam that he’d removed one of her fallopian tubes because it was “clogged,” Huynh says.
“She is ‘bothered’ by the fact that she went into surgery expecting a D&C and ended up having a salpingectomy,” a doctor wrote of Binam in a psychiatric progress note reviewed by VICE News. The note was written just five days after her surgery.
During a follow-up appointment, Huynh says, the doctor told Binam a different story: He didn't remove the fallopian tube, he clipped and tied it. Binam hasn’t had a period since, according to Huynh.
Binam, an immigrant from Cameroon, arrived in the United States when she was just two years old, according to her lawyer and sister. Earlier this year, Binam was transferred from Irwin County Detention Center to another facility in Texas. On Wednesday, just two days after the whistleblower complaint was filed, she was set to be deported to Cameroon.
Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, demanded that ICE halt Binam’s deportation, and on Saturday hailed her release on Twitter.
Investigations at Irwin
Now, members of Congress say they’re determined to find out what happened at the facility. The chairs of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform have requested an emergency investigation into the whistleblower complaint, which was submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. More than 170 members of Congress have also separately called for an investigation.
In his statement, Pham, the ICE acting director, said he welcomed investigations into the matter. According to ICE data, two people at the Irwin County Detention Center have been referred to medical providers for hysterectomies since 2018.
Amin, the doctor linked to some of the surgeries uncovered by VICE News, confirmed to the Intercept last week that he had performed procedures on women detained at Irwin. He said that he had only performed “one or two” hysterectomies over the last two or three years, but he did not clarify whether those hysterectomies were performed on women at Irwin.
Amin is not a board-certified OB-GYN, according to a Daily Beast report that cited representatives of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and American Board of Medical Specialties. He reportedly completed medical school in India and a residency at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey.
Board certification is a voluntary process generally meant to enhance a specialist’s standing beyond simply being licensed by the state. The Daily Beast also reported that Amin “appears to maintain an active license with the Georgia Composite Medical Board.”
Prism reported that Amin is viewed as a “pillar of the community” in Douglas, Georgia, where he’s practiced obstetrics and gynecology for decades. Local residents have created a Facebook page to post positive testimonials from people who say they were his patients.
In 2013, state and federal authorities sued Amin, the Hospital Authority of Irwin County, and several other co-defendants for allegedly submitting false claims to Medicare and Medicaid. The defendants agreed to pay $520,000 to settle the claims in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. There was no determination of liability.
According to a statement from Amin’s attorney, Grubman, Amin anticipates that a full airing of the situation will show he did nothing wrong. Grubman pointed to a Washington Post article in which “one of the whistleblower's attorneys expressly acknowledged that she did not speak to any of the women directly and that she ‘included the allegations in the report with the intention of triggering an investigation into whether or not the claims were true.’”
“We look forward to all of the facts coming out and are confident that, once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of any wrongdoing,” Grubman wrote.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the description a doctor gave Pauline Binam of her surgery during a follow-up appointment. She was informed that her fallopian tube had been clipped and tied.
COVER: Dawn Wooten, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., speaks at a Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)