Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, at Sept. 15 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)


A legal complaint on behalf of immigrants detained at LaSalle Corrections-operated Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) brings new details of poor sanitary conditions, medical neglect, and non-consensual hysterectomies. The complaint was filed by Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.

The 27-page document consists of interviews with current detainees and Dawn Wooten, a licensed nurse practitioner working for ICDC.

The legal brief by Project South states: “For years, detained immigrants at ICDC have reported human rights abuses including lack of medical and mental health care, due process violations, unsanitary living conditions and more […] detained immigrants have reported not being able to see a medical professional for several weeks despite submitting multiple sick call requests, not receiving life dependent medication consistently, and not receiving proper medical care once they are able to see a medical professional.”

Perhaps most shocking in this report is repeated allegations of excessive hysterectomies. One detained immigrant told Project South that she talked with five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done. She noted that all the women sounded “confused when explaining why they had one done,” indicating the reason for the procedure was not fully conveyed to them. 

According to Ms. Wooten, “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.” 

The complaint goes on, “When employees do speak out against violations occurring at ICDC, they are reprimanded. Ms. Wooten has witnessed other employees be reprimanded for doing “what’s right,” and she has been reprimanded and retaliated against, herself. She witnessed one captain be fired for refusing to let things slide and for following the CDC and PBNDS rules strictly.”

The complaint calls for an urgent and thorough investigation into the practices at ICDC as well as all other LaSalle operated facilities. Project South notes that, “these complaints suggest a more systemic problem.”

Attacks on reproduction 

The U.S. economy is fundamentally based on racial hierarchies within the workforce on the one hand and the unpaid domestic labor of women in reproducing the working classes on the other. Both of these conditions allow the bosses to pay all workers less and create the permanent structures of abuse for women and queer people. At the same time, children, elderly, disabled, and unemployed workers take additional resources to maintain in addition to “productive” workers.

The main mechanisms that the capitalists have to regulate these “surplus” populations are controls on immigrants and women and queer people’s bodies. These are the forces behind the racist stereotypes of “Black welfare queens,” immigrants abusing social security, etc.

Biological sterilization is used both positively and negatively by capitalism. “Positively” through the banning of abortion and other birth-control procedures, which drives up the birth rate. Negatively through sterilization of “undesirable” populations, which historically have been largely women of color, queer, and disabled people. Taken together, these tactics become a strategy of banning abortion for cis white women while taking away reproductive capacities of women of color, queer, and disabled people. The U.S. medical establishment has a long history of such practices, including mass sterilization campaigns in Puerto Rico, of Indigenous women, and Black women in the South, all of which lasted well into the 1970s.

This wasn’t a random phenomenon; rather, this fits into this country’s long medical history of eugenics and racialized science: “We do know that sterilization was the fastest growing method of birth control in this era. In 1970, 200,000 operations were performed; in 1980, more than 700,000, a disproportionate number of them on women of color. Ironically but predictably, at the very same time, white women had a hard time getting their doctors to agree to tie their tubes. Presumably, doctors believed the babies these women produced represented superior value to American society.” — Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, “Reproductive Justice: An Introduction”

The revelations about doctors working with ICE who are carrying out non-consensual hysterectomies is the latest attack on women behind bars. It stands in direct continuity with the 2013 finding released in a government report by the California State Auditor. That report found that 136 incarcerated women had been forcefully sterilized between 2006 and 2013 and placed the responsibility at the feet of the Department of Corrections.

All immigrants under attack, especially women

The Obama administration put in motion today’s mass deportation apparatus. Between mid-2012 and mid-2015, 31 people died in ICE custody. A Human Rights Watch report points to active negligence as the cause of many of the deaths. The government only released information on 18 of the 31 cases. The transition to Trump’s presidency was characterized by “the U.S. government continu[ing] to fail to ensure that all detention facilities provide adequate health care to immigrants in detention.”

Since the 2016 election, the rate of deportations has actually decreased. At the same time, Trump has made multiple frontal attacks on the rights of immigrants, including attempting to ban refugees from countries that are victims of U.S. imperialism. Most recently, both parties supported withholding pandemic stimulus benefits from not only immigrants but also their spouses in the CARES Act. The day after the Project South report was filed, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld Trump’s attempt to end the Bush Sr.-era Temporary Protective Status, potentially opening the door to deporting over 400,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nepal, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Immigrant women are a central component of the U.S. working class. Capital depends on their precariousness to staff some of the most important jobs. According to the American Immigration Council, the top four occupations for foreign-born women in 2015 were housekeeper; nursing, psychiatric, and home health aide; cashier; and registered nurse. Over half of all agricultural graders and sorters are immigrant women. At the same time, almost 60% of immigrant women earn less than $30,000 while 50% of U.S.-born women earn over $39,000 annually.

ICE has been unleashing special terror on undocumented women. The Intercept reported 1224 complaints of sexual abuse in ICE detention centers between 2010 and 2017, of which only 43 were investigated. As early as 2008, only five years after ICE came into existence, Julia Hing reported systemic sexual assault against immigrant women by the agency. 

Detention, incarceration, and medical abuse

The Project South Report details extreme medical neglect, but such abuses are part and parcel of the prison and deportation industrial complexes in the United States. Poor living standards in jails, prisons, and detention centers are “Malthusian” responses to social problems. In stark confirmation to the idea that prison is used to shorten the lives of capitalism’s “undesirables,” the Prison Policy Institute found that every year in prison lessens life expectancy by two years. Given the huge amount of people who have gone through the U.S. prison system, this has led to a decrease in the average American lifespan of five years. 

Earlier in the pandemic, a member of Socialist Resurgence spoke with a CT prison nurse who was reassigned to the facility all the inmates with signs of COVID-19 were being sent to. She said nurses were given single-use PPE and told to make it last the week. When asked if they were testing staff and inmates regularly, she laughed: “they’re not testing us at all.” 

Many detention centers are operating in a similar manner. The complaint by Project South notes that employees and detained immigrants at ICDC have only received one mask since the beginning of the pandemic. At the detention center in Etowah, Alabama, a legal complaint filed on behalf of those detained alleged that the facility “had responded to the pandemic by moving more than 100 ICE detainees into one unit of the jail, where they were often in close proximity to each other in common areas. Instead of clamping down on the spread of the virus by enabling social distancing and avoiding new transfers… the jail purchased a “fogger” machine to spray cleaning chemicals, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend the practice.”

Immigrant fightback and the way forward

Immigrants and working people have not been taking these attacks lying down. Even before the upsurge following George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis Police Department, undocumented people in detention went on hunger strike against the dangerous conditions created by ICE. The direction that the movement can go is indicated by the solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Protests from inside detention centers and the demands to abolish both capitalist policing and ICE raised by UAW Local 2322 in late May. Another positive development along these lines is the ongoing strike of GEO-AFT Local 3550, which is demanding defunding the police and ICE off of University of Michigan’s campus. 

Unions with large immigrant membership have a historic responsibility to lead the traditionally more conservative sectors through bold fights for immigrant justice. The 2018 joint demonstration that brought out thousands of rank-and-file workers from UNITE HERE, UFCW, AFSCME, and the Building Trades in Philadelphia is a small example of the types of cooperation that are necessary. The weakness of that demonstration is related to the current labor movement as a whole—subordinating independent worker organizations to the Democratic Party. 

The way forward for ending the detention centers, shutting down capitalist prisons and jails, and opening the borders is through the creation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party that can mobilize immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike in their millions. The way forward is one, two, many May Day, 2006s. These authors humbly suggest that this time around, instead of “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” the slogan ought to be “Today we march, tomorrow we rule.”