Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of gynecological abuse.
It was a routine duty for staff at a remote immigrant prison in rural Georgia: taking the women held there into town for gynecological appointments.
The vans would leave the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla bound for a nearby doctor’s office or hospital where detention center guards would wait as women underwent procedures, including surgeries, which were approved by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Afterward, as the women were driven back to the prison, it wasn’t unusual for them to complain of pain and bleeding from the procedures, or to question whether the operations were needed in the first place. Some non-English speakers, the Southern Poverty Law Center would determine, did not have an interpreter at the appointment to ensure they had provided informed consent – a foundation of medical ethics.
Other women soon discovered they’d undergone procedures that they had not consented to, such as the removal of fallopian tubes, rendering them unable to bear children. Back at ICDC, the women would share stories about surgeries and exams so painful that one woman – a survivor of sexual violence – likened to “being raped again.”
Ultimately, the experience left the women unsure what had happened to their own bodies.
ICE was generally required to review requests for surgeries and approve payments for them, and the women were driven to their appointments by employees of Lasalle Corrections, the private prison company operating the immigrant prison. Yet the women’s plight might have gone undiscovered had it not been for a nurse at ICDC who filed a whistleblower complaint that raised concerns about COVID-19 precautions at the facility.
In the complaint, the nurse also sounded alarms about the gynecological surgeries. The document, filed in September 2020, opened the door for these migrant women to come forward with their stories of what they had experienced while held by ICE at this immigrant prison some 200 miles south of Atlanta.
“ICE took advantage of us,” said Doreen Durity, a mother of three who was held at ICDC and subjected to gynecological abuse. “We are victims of a crime. What we went through was ugly, sad, terrible and disgusting. It was like living through a horror movie that was real. But I stand up for the truth. And the truth will prevail eventually.”
Durity is one of 10 women whose stories are recounted in medical grievances filed with the Georgia Medical Composite Board in December 2020. With the assistance of the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) and other advocates, the grievances seek the revocation of a South Georgia doctor’s medical license for a pattern of mistreatment during the women’s gynecological appointments, ranging from rough and painful examinations to undergoing medically unnecessary surgeries performed without consent.
Durity’s story, recounted in her filing and told here, highlights the abuse endured by the women held at ICDC and the system that puts so many migrant women, particularly women of color, in danger. Durity, a 55-year-old woman motivated by deep religious faith, said she told her story to support fellow abuse survivors, many of whom have since come together in activism.
‘You’ll be new’
Durity was locked up at ICDC in April 2020. Shortly afterward, she sought help for irregular bleeding she believed was related to menopause. She was sent to Dr. Mahendra Amin, whom she saw for the first time at his office outside the immigrant prison.
“He was very rough,” Durity said of her exam in May 2020. The doctor, she said, gave no warning before examining her, nor did he lubricate his glove.
She said she was left with a “sharp pain” afterward.
Amin told Durity that her pain was the result of an ovarian cyst the size of a baseball on the right side of her uterus. Coming from Trinidad, where cricket is a more popular pastime, Durity didn’t know what baseball was, so Amin explained that the cyst was the size of two fists pressed together, she said in her medical grievance and interview with the SPLC.
When she asked how he knew the pain was caused by an ovarian cyst, he attributed the diagnosis to “experience.” He said the surgery would go smoothly – and that it needed to happen immediately.
“He told me that the only thing that would stop the bleeding was surgery,” Durity said. “I told him there must be something – a pill, perhaps, like birth control – that would stop the bleeding. But he said no, and that my only option was surgery.”
But Durity – who had been extradited to the U.S. in 2013 and was desperately awaiting a flight back home to Trinidad to care for her ailing mother – didn’t believe she needed the surgery. She felt coerced. The doctor told her that she would get cancer and die without the operation.
“I told him I didn’t want the procedure,” she said. “But Dr. Amin told me again and again that the surgery would be quick – really quick – and then I would be good. He told me, ‘You’ll be new.’”
She eventually consented out of fear of Amin’s warning of dying from cancer.
“While I’m not a doctor, I’ve spoken to several, and it is unclear to all of us, most importantly Durity, how Amin could have known the cyst was precancerous after this single exam and without doing a biopsy,” said SIFI Lead Attorney Maura Finn, who filed Durity’s medical grievance and represented her when she later testified against Amin to Department of Justice (DOJ) investigators.
“The surgery was performed very quickly after the initial exam – just a week later – which is very unusual, according to other doctors SIFI spoke to, who told us that less extreme treatment, such as hormonal treatment to shrink the cyst, is typically recommended first.”
After the surgery, Durity never saw Amin again. She was never given a follow-up appointment, nor was she provided proper antibiotics or pain relievers that the doctor had allegedly prescribed. She had a fresh scar that caused immense pain while walking or sitting, but she was only given ibuprofen by immigrant prison staff.
‘I felt like a fool’
Durity’s doubts about the operation were confirmed when she spoke with two other much younger women at the immigrant prison also diagnosed with cysts who had undergone the surgery. She felt duped, as it didn’t seem to her that these young women understood why they had the procedure.
“I felt like a fool, and I kept asking myself why I went through with the surgery,” she said.
When the whistleblower came forward, Durity’s doubts were confirmed. In the complaint, the nurse outlined her concerns about the rate of hysterectomies performed on detained women. She referred to a doctor – later identified as Amin – as “the uterus collector.” The Daily Beast reported that same month that Amin wasn’t even a board-certified OB-GYN.
A group of congressional lawmakers then called on the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate the claims against Amin. Soon after, it was alleged that Amin had pressured roughly 57 other women into having gynecological procedures, according to a group of immigration lawyers, doctors and previously detained women who met with U.S. senators in October 2020.
By the end of 2020, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI had reportedly launched investigations into Amin’s treatment of detained people. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is also still investigating.
“The abuse that Durity and the other women who were victimized by Dr. Amin endured is horrific, and yet exactly the type of violent mistreatment that will inevitably continue to happen for as long as ICE is permitted to detain immigrants,” said Finn.
A key issue for migrants is that they are locked up in an abusive system that must be fundamentally changed, Finn said. The SPLC’s longstanding work within the immigrant detention system has highlighted how mistreatment can intersect with lucrative ICE contracts held by private prison companies operating facilities where they are more focused on profit than the detained people in their care.
“Similarly, the money paid by ICE to provide medical care to detained immigrants can be an attractive revenue stream for health care providers – money that warrants serious oversight to ensure invasive and expensive procedures are truly needed,” Finn said.
In the wake of reports about the detained immigrant women treated by Amin, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story examining the doctor’s “financial and legal pressures.” It noted that when a company he owned oversaw the daily operations of the Irwin County Hospital, authorities accused him and other doctors of inflating or falsifying bills to Medicaid and Medicare.
The newspaper also reported that the hospital paid a $520,000 civil penalty. Amin, the other doctors and the facility did not admit any wrongdoing and remained eligible to bill the programs. The hospital eventually selected another management company, but Amin remained on its medical staff. Amin, through an attorney speaking to the newspaper, denied allegations stemming from the detention center. He cannot treat women at ICDC while the investigation is underway.
On Dec. 10, 2020, 10 women currently or previously detained at ICDC filed medical grievances with the state seeking the revocation of Amin’s medical license.
Shortly before Christmas, a class action lawsuit was filed against ICE on behalf of 14 named women, accusing Amin of performing unwanted or unnecessary gynecological procedures – such as operating on “tumors” – that led to irreversible harm. Including the 14 women named in the lawsuit, more than 40 women provided testimony for the complaint.
The SPLC assisted with efforts that led to the filing of the lawsuit, and then helped connect the women with investigators at the DOJ, should they wish to offer testimony to the investigators. A fair number of women did not want to testify due to fear of retaliation by ICE. Durity, however, testified despite an ICE officer falsely telling her while at ICDC that she would not be returned to Trinidad to be with her ill mother if she testified.
Shared pain, shared community
Durity, however, was released from ICDC on Oct. 25, 2020. She is now back in Trinidad.
Since she never spoke to Amin after the surgery, Durity does not know if her operation was a success or not, or if more than a cyst – perhaps an ovary – was removed. But she cannot afford to see a doctor. In the meantime, she is hoping to find work to pay for a gynecologist in Trinidad and finally get some answers to her questions.
Since her release, Durity and the other women have banded together, despite the miles between them, even advocating for the release of other detained women, Finn said.
“I am blown away by their strength, self-advocacy and solidarity,” she said.
Durity has written letters to some of the other women. Another woman has been in touch with organizers advocating for the women, and another has penned letters speaking to their experiences with Amin that were submitted with their parole requests.
“I share their pain and emotions,” Durity said through tears during her interview with the SPLC. “I feel so sorry for the other women, and I keep them in my prayers.”
*Learn about the campaign to close the Irwin County Detention Center and other facilities from our allies at Detention Watch Network and their Communities Not Cages campaign. Sign a petition to shut down the Irwin County Detention Center here.
Doreen Durity is pictured in the image at the top of this story.