At Georgia immigration jail, warnings about women’s medical care went unheeded

Protesters demonstrated outside the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, on Sept. 26, 2020. Newly released documents show immigration officials did not monitor treatment of detainees by a gynecologist.  (John Arthur Brown/Zuma Press/TNS)
Protesters demonstrated outside the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, on Sept. 26, 2020. Newly released documents show immigration officials did not monitor treatment of detainees by a gynecologist. (John Arthur Brown/Zuma Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Federal immigration officials failed to monitor medical treatment at a South Georgia detention center where dozens of women say they underwent unwanted procedures, including hysterectomies, newly released documents show.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not track whether women held at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla consented to the procedures, the documents show. Nor did the agency ensure that an outside gynecologist — now accused of sterilizing women against their will — used a government-funded translation service to explain procedures in the women’s native languages.

For at least two years, according to the documents, officials disregarded, dismissed or denied claims of improper treatment by the gynecologist, Dr. Mahendra Amin. When a detainee complained early last year about being handcuffed during an invasive procedure by Amin, ICE responded: “There is no medical reason for hand restraints to be removed for a non-pregnant female vaginal examination.”

“ICE knew about medical abuse on women’s bodies as far back as 2018 and didn’t do anything,” Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director of Project South, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for detained immigrants, said in an interview. “The buck stops with ICE. They failed at their utmost responsibility – to provide care and basic human dignity to people in their custody.”

Project South, the National Immigration Project and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, all left-leaning advocacy groups, obtained 700 pages of documents about medical care at the Irwin County facility through the federal Freedom of Information Act. The material, reviewed independently by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, contains new revelations about the scale of alleged abuse at the detention center, including a significantly higher number of hysterectomies than ICE had previously acknowledged.

The detention center, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, is owned by Irwin County and is operated by a private company under contract with ICE. It has been under scrutiny since last September, when a former employee’s whistleblower complaint alleged forced sterilizations and other abuses.

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, and congressional investigators are still reviewing the allegations. President Joe Biden’s administration said last month it would cancel the contract at Irwin and remove all detainees “as soon as possible.” ICE said last year it typically housed about 800 undocumented immigrants at Irwin, most of them awaiting deportation proceedings.

By email on Saturday, an ICE spokeswoman said the agency is cooperating with investigators and has barred Amin from treating detainees.

The alleged abuses are “shocking and disturbing,” said Paige Hughes, the acting press secretary for ICE. “No one should be in a position to have doubts about the medical care provided to them. … Detainees should be provided sufficient information so that they may give informed consent to their medical care, just like patients who are not in detention.”

A lawyer for Amin did not respond to an interview request. The lawyer, Scott Grubman, has previously denied wrongdoing by Amin, saying the physician performed only medically necessary procedures, always with patients’ consent.

Amin, 69, practices obstetrics and gynecology in Ocilla and in Douglas, 25 miles to the east. He also has incorporated at least 17 companies in addition to his medical practice during the past 25 years, running motels, convenience stores — and a management company that operated the Irwin County Hospital, where he performed many of the procedures at the center of the allegations against him.

Dr. Mahendra Amin's management company operated the Irwin County Hospital in Ocilla, Georgia, where detainees from the Irwin County Detention Center say he performed unwanted gynecological procedures. (Alan Judd / alan.judd@ajc.com)
Dr. Mahendra Amin's management company operated the Irwin County Hospital in Ocilla, Georgia, where detainees from the Irwin County Detention Center say he performed unwanted gynecological procedures. (Alan Judd / alan.judd@ajc.com)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In court papers, 40 former detainees detailed their experiences with Amin. Some said they awoke from what they thought were minor surgeries to learn they were no longer able to bear children. Others said Amin placed his fingers and ultrasound wands into their vaginas without permission or lubrication and his examinations left them bruised and bleeding.

One described a visit to Amin’s office as “the most medical way of being raped you could possibly experience.”

But ICE took no action after complaints by detainees, their lawyers and the Mexican consulate in Atlanta, the newly released documents show.

When the consulate asked about the whistleblower’s allegations last fall, a top ICE official said the claims would be fully investigated – but indicated he had already made up his mind.

“Any assertion or claim is false and intentionally misleading,” the official wrote.

In a memo from last September, ICE said “offsite specialists” such as Amin were responsible for obtaining informed consent from detainees before medical procedures. “All detainees retain the right to refuse any medical treatment,” the memo said.

But the agency acknowledged it did not inspect or collect consent forms or otherwise ensure Amin treated women with their permission. Because so many detainees spoke no English, the agency gave Amin access to a service that would translate over the telephone. “However,” one official wrote in a memo, “we do not track his usage.” Numerous women have alleged they had no access to interpreters while seeing Amin.

Dr. Mahendra Amin's office in Douglas, Georgia, 25 miles east of Ocilla, where the gynecologist treated detainees from an immigration detention center. (Alan Judd / alan.judd@ajc.com)
Dr. Mahendra Amin's office in Douglas, Georgia, 25 miles east of Ocilla, where the gynecologist treated detainees from an immigration detention center. (Alan Judd / alan.judd@ajc.com)

Credit: Alan Judd

Credit: Alan Judd

The new documents also show ICE had previously understated the number of invasive procedures Amin had performed.

The agency said last September that only two women from the Irwin facility had undergone hysterectomies. The new documents, however, show Amin billed ICE for at least eight hysterectomies from 2017 to 2020. Two of those procedures were canceled.

Amin also submitted bills for 75 other invasive procedures, such as dilation and curettage and laparoscopy, and for 740 office visits by detainees over five years.

How much Amin earned is not clear. But for five hysterectomies between 2017 and 2020, records show, the government paid him more than $70,000.

Amin scheduled the last hysterectomy for May 2020. As of September, when ICE barred him from treating detainees, he still hadn’t submitted a bill.

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