Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Growing up, her favorite TV shows were Family Matters, Full House, and Saved by the Bell. When she first heard Mary J. Blige on the radio, she knew she had to be a musician. She speaks with a Southern accent, supports Black Lives Matter, and identifies as Black American.
But in just two weeks, Mbeti Ndonga is scheduled to be deported to Kenya, a country she left when she was only a toddler.
“I would have to start from scratch, trying to make new friends and make a life for myself,” Ndonga, 37, told VICE News in an interview from inside Irwin County Detention Center, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility now at the white-hot center of a scandal involving allegations of unwanted or unnecessary gynecological procedures on ICE detainees.
Ndonga, too, is at the heart of that scandal: She is one of more than 50 women who have come forward since the September publication of a whistleblower complaint that alleged a pattern of “jarring medical neglect” and confusing medical treatment at the Ocilla, Georgia, facility. In the wake of that complaint, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office has launched an investigation into Irwin. But VICE News has discovered that ICE has deported and is attempting to deport women who were treated by Dr. Mahendra Amin, the local gynecologist linked to many of the allegations. (He has denied all wrongdoing.)
Know anything about medical abuse in ICE facilities? Email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. For additional security send a number at which we can reach you on Signal or Whatsapp.
In mid-November, members of Congress asked the agency’s acting director to “refrain from deporting witnesses and victims in ongoing investigations.” Last week, ICE scheduled two women who had been treated by Amin for deportation; although both women were ultimately able to remain in the United States, thanks to the frantic efforts of their attorneys, this was the second time this month that both women had been on the verge of being deported.
Now, Ndonga’s lawyers fear that she could be the next woman connected to the investigation to be kicked out of the country.
First detained at Irwin in April 2019, Ndonga soon started experiencing heavy menstruation—an issue that ultimately brought her under Amin’s care. In June, she underwent an ultrasound, not performed by Amin, which indicated that she had fibroids, according to medical records reviewed by VICE News. These tumors are common and typically benign.
In July, Ndonga saw Amin for a follow-up appointment, per the records. She received another ultrasound, where he also found what he believed to be fibroids.
Ndonga couldn’t wrap her head around what Amin told her next, she said.
“He said that my uterus was as big as a melon and that I would never have children. It would be a miracle for me to have kids. That’s what he told me: I needed surgery right away,” Ndonga said in an interview from Irwin. “I was shocked, because no one had ever told me that I could never, ever have kids.”
Ndonga said that Amin suggested that she have a hysterectomy—a surgical removal of her uterus—or dilation and curettage, which is frequently called a “D&C” and involves dilating the cervix and scraping the uterine lining. She refused to have a hysterectomy.
In mid-August, Ndonga had what she said was her final appointment with Amin. This time, she was set to undergo a D&C and a laparoscopy. After Ndonga arrived at the hospital, she told VICE News, one of Amin’s nurses kept asking her if she was getting a hysterectomy. Ndonga said no.
“I remember thinking, if I wake up and I don't have my period, I'm in trouble.”
“I remember thinking, if I wake up and I don't have my period, I'm in trouble,” she said. “I didn't know how much trouble I was in until that moment when she said a hysterectomy, and I kind of looked over to the other lady that was in surgery with me.”
“I was just expressionless, like, what's happening to us? Like what's going to happen to us? What did we get ourselves into?”
Ndonga did undergo that laparoscopy and D&C, according to medical records. (The records from Amin’s practice repeatedly misspell Ndonga’s first name in different ways.) Asked at what point she first understood she’d had a surgery, Ndonga said, “When I woke up and saw the incisions.”
Ndonga’s legal team said she signed some consent forms, but Ndonga said she didn’t realize that she was consenting to—or even having—surgery. In the weeks before and after these procedures, Ndonga’s mental health was turbulent; she was continually placed under observation by Irwin staffers because they feared she’d hurt herself. (Records from the hospital where Amin works note that she has a history of mental illness.)
A pathology report from Ndonga’s procedure indicated that Amin removed a follicular cyst as well as tissue from the cervix and uterus.
Dr. Ted Anderson, a gynecologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who helped review the medical records of 19 women detained at Irwin, told Democratic members of the Senate in late October that Amin often took an aggressive approach to medicine.
“He frequently identified ovarian follicles, a benign component of normal ovarian function, and portrayed them as worrisome cysts that resulted in removal of portions of the ovary, when the appropriate intervention should have been repeat ultrasound in 4 to 6 weeks to ensure their spontaneous resolution,” Anderson said, according to a copy of his testimony obtained by VICE News. Anderson is also the immediate past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the premier professional organization for OB-GYNs in the U.S., although he clarified that he spoke only for himself.
Scott Grubman, Amin’s attorney, has previously said that this review—which was authored by nine board-certified OB-GYNs affiliated with major academic medical centers and two nursing experts—is “severely incomplete, at best,” because they did not obtain all of the patients’ medical records.
Although Anderson acknowledged in his October testimony that he and his co-authors didn’t obtain all of the women’s medical records, he stood by their conclusions.
“There is sufficient detail regarding the gynecologic care of these individuals to allow the reviewers to recognize patterns in the evaluation and care of these women,” he said.
“To be clear, these allegations are simply false, and amount to malicious and actionable defamation,” Grubman told VICE News in an email Friday. “Multiple independent witnesses who were physically present in the examination and/or operating room while Dr. Amin provided treatment to ICE detainees have expressly refuted, in writing and under oath, allegations of any rough or inappropriate treatment.
“Dr. Amin has always provided the care he deems appropriate based on his medical training, and has always treated his patients with the utmost care and respect. Dr. Amin is cooperating in multiple ongoing investigations and looks forward to those investigations clearing him of any such wrongdoing.”
Ndonga’s allegations, and those made by the 50-plus other women who have been detained at Irwin, are not all limited to gynecology. As part of a lawsuit filed Thursday against the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and ICE, 22 women offered brutal and wide-ranging accusations against Irwin County Detention Center and the people who worked there.
When Ndonga experienced pain in her teeth, she requested an appointment with the dentist. He gave her a shocking assessment.
“He said full extractions,” said Ndonga, who was told that ICE does not pay for detainees to get their teeth filled. “I'm 37 years old. I'm terrified. Like, it was like, what else? What else do I have to go through?”
She’s not the only one to be given that recommendation while at Irwin: One other woman—who’d been a patient of Amin’s and been slated for deportation—was told the same thing by a local dentist after she complained about tooth pain, records show.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the agency has referred VICE News to previous statements. In the past, ICE has said that it is fully cooperating with the investigation into Irwin, including accommodating interviews that are being conducted through the Department of Justice.
“ICE has been notifying the DHS OIG, through ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, about any planned transfers or removals of Irwin detainees who were former patients of Dr. Amin, and is fully supporting the efforts by both the DHS OIG and DOJ Civil Rights Division,” the spokesperson said in an email earlier this week. “Any implication that ICE is attempting to impede the investigation by conducting removals of those being interviewed is completely false.”
“We don’t comment on pending removals,” the spokesperson said in an email Friday, adding that ICE spent more than $315 million on medical care services for detainees in fiscal year 2020. “We do not want to litigate the Dr. Amin investigation in the media—we are waiting for the OIG [Office of Inspector General] to complete its investigation.”
Scott Sutterfield, a spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections, said that he couldn’t comment due to the ongoing investigations.
“I can say that LaSalle Corrections strongly refutes any implications of misconduct at the Irwin County Detention Center,” Sutterfield said in an email. “It is well established that ICDC has a proven record of delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in a safe and humane environment and the health and welfare of those in ICDC’s care is paramount. Also, ICDC is guided by the standards set by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other government partners, including the Performance-Based National Detention Standards, which include a range of standards for the delivery of medical care. Frequent audits verify that ICDC closely adheres to these protocols.”
Contractors like LaSalle, he added, “play no role in transfer or release decisions for detainees.”
It wasn’t just the medical treatment at Irwin that’s left Ndonga bewildered. When she first arrived, Ndonga couldn’t believe she was in an ICE detention facility at all. Irwin, she said, is like “a little dungeon.”
“The noises were getting to me, like the slamming of the doors, the long echoes of the hallways, people talking in different languages—I'm used to speaking English in my household,” Ndonga recalled of her first experiences at Irwin. “I know very little Spanish. So, like, all of that was just a big shock. There were shrines to the Virgin Mary, different shrines placed in different parts of the dorm. It was really odd for me.
“I was just wondering, how long am I going to be in here? I cannot be here that long,” Ndonga remembered thinking. “But I have done 20 months already.”
‘It was my cry for help’
Ndonga grew up knowing what it meant to be an American—and what it meant to be a foreigner in the United States.
When Ndonga’s parents moved to the U.S. in 1986, her father had just $20 in his pocket and a vision of becoming a pastor. The family settled in Memphis, Tennessee, before moving to Columbia, South Carolina.
“I remember my first snowfall in the United States,” Ndonga recalled. She was 3 or 4 years old. “Our whole family at the time—my brother, me, and my mom and my dad—went outside and it was the first time we’d ever seen snow. It was in Memphis, Tennessee, and we had a little snow fight.”
Ndonga quickly fell in love with music: She adored Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and Whitney Houston, and learned to play the saxophone. Alongside her siblings, Ndonga grew up singing contemporary gospel hits in her father’s choir—and, of course, watching MTV. She eventually scored a full scholarship to study voice at Truett McConnell University in Cleveland, Georgia, she told VICE News.
“It was just big, ‘Wow, aha, God,’ moment, I guess you could call it,” Ndonga said. “It was everything that I wanted to do. I wanted to study music, I wanted to study classical music, and I was able to do that. And I was really blessed to do that.”
That blessing, however, did not last long. The first cracks in Ndonga’s now-shattered hopes started with symptoms of depression while she was in college.
“I’d go for weeks of being normal, but then I would just be majorly depressed where I’m not doing anything, I’m just laying around. I was crying a lot,” Ndonga explains. She did not yet know that she was struggling with a series of mental health disorders that would eventually reshape the direction of her whole life.
“I was having suicidal thoughts, paranoia, severe depression, crying spells, lack of appetite, just to name a few, hearing voices,” Ndonga said. “I struggled with that for five years…at the very least.”
VICE News did an extensive review of Ndonga’s psychiatric records from her life before her detainment at Irwin. Many mention these symptoms.
Ndonga left and moved back in with her parents in Georgia. There, police officers harassed her, she said, because she was a Black woman living in a wealthy, white area. Once, Ndonga said, police officers followed her after she picked up her brother, Peter.
He still remembers that day.
“We were definitely being followed. We weren’t stopped. But it happens,” Peter Ndonga said. “They were definitely looking for a reason to pull us over.”
Several times, she felt she was pulled over for no good reason—or for no reason at all. If she was lost, Mbeti Ndonga said, someone would call the cops on her. The mounting anxiety Ndonga felt was only compounded by the mental illness-induced paranoia she was experiencing at the time, according to Mbeti, Peter, and Mbeti’s psychiatry records.
By her mid-twenties, frustration had built up inside Ndonga. Coupled with her mental health struggles, she said that she acted out; she was convicted of multiple felonies, including, in one case, for breaking the windshield of an unoccupied police car, per records viewed by VICE News. She spent years in and out of prison.
“I was in a very critical state of mind. I was suicidal. I was not on my medication,” Ndonga said. “It's not something that I would repeat doing, but it's something that has happened, and it was my cry for help.
“I feel like I just deserve a chance to kind of defend her, that 23-year-old.”
Peter Ndonga saw his older sister struggling during childhood. Her mental illness wasn’t treated early, he said, and it’s the reason she is where she is today.
“There were always signs of her mental condition, if I look back,” he said. “That’s what makes me feel so bad about the current state of things. Because she’s definitely not a violent felon that should be facing deportation, or not fit for society, no. Her mental issues should’ve been addressed.”
In the years after being released from prison, Mbeti Ndonga struggled to stabilize her life. During an erratic episode in late 2017, a family member called mental health counselors, who apparently alerted the police. The details of this encounter are hazy, but Ndonga was picked up by ICE.
Two months later, in January 2018, Ndonga was deported to Kenya.
When she landed in there, Ndonga was surprised by one feeling: relief. While living in an African country, she didn’t experience the same racism she had faced in the U.S. But then, she was raped by a driver while riding in his car, she said. Ndonga still struggles with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
After unmanageable stress and anxiety, and no mental health support, Ndonga boarded a flight back to the U.S., thinking her green card was still valid. She moved back in with her mom, got a job at Wendy’s, and started getting adequate mental health treatment.
Several months later, in spring 2019, Ndonga was picked up by ICE for illegally entering the country. She has been detained at Irwin County Detention Center since.
‘It’s almost a death sentence’
Ndonga is still dealing with gynecological issues. But she’s since seen a different doctor, who, she said, has prescribed her medication for her fibroids, which she prefers over surgery. She still struggles with bouts of depression, but for the most part, she’s stable. She understands how to regulate her mental illness, but says she doesn’t have access to the care she needs inside Irwin.
“The care I’ve gotten is very minimal and small. It’s not great care,” she said. “I can’t just go talk to a psychiatrist.”
Ndonga added, “What works for me is medication and therapy. And I’m on my own with therapy.”
Looming always, though, is the reality that she has a criminal history, an invalid green card, and almost no shot at American citizenship. She’s stuck in an ICE facility, with few options but to prepare for deportation.
Ndonga was scheduled to speak to investigators working on the Department of Homeland Security investigation into Irwin on October 27, according to her legal team; hours later, the stay on her deportation was lifted. But, her team said, Ndonga wasn’t emotionally ready to answer the investigators’ questions and asked to consult with her legal team. Ndonga’s interview with the investigators instead took place on November 10.
“I do have a fear that maybe now that they got their testimony from me, they'll be more prompt to want to try to deport me,” said Ndonga, who still wants her citizenship to be reviewed.
Her family, meanwhile, is helpless. They fear the day she’s forced to leave.
“The idea of her going to a country that’s so foreign to her—she knows no one—it’s almost a death sentence,” Peter Ndonga said. “My parents, me, we’re unsure how to help her. It would be the worst-case scenario if she’s sent there and can’t come back.”
Ndonga also fears for her mental and emotional health if she’s sent back there. She has little to tie her to Kenya, besides her memories of trauma.
“I am not sure if I will get the care I need,” Ndonga said. Her dreams are simple: “I would like to go to school and finish my degrees that I started. I would like a normal life where I don't have to worry about injustices and atrocities happening, and just to be treated fairly.”