In late September, reporting fellow Seth Freed Wessler co-bylined a front page story in The New York Times: 16 women held in a Georgia detention center had come forward accusing a gynecologist of subjecting them to unnecessary procedures without their consent. The story was cited on the floor of the House and referenced in a resolution; several federal investigations are ongoing; and the deportations of some of the women have been put on hold. We spoke to Seth about what the project tells us, why it matters, and how he did it.
Type: You reported this story in under two weeks. Can you tell us how it came about?
Wessler: Since March, I have been reporting on detainees in Irwin County Detention Center using tablets and a video call application installed by the facility. Previously, I reported on detainees as they organized and protested for safety in the face of a spreading pandemic.
When a nurse from the facility stepped forward as a whistleblower , I immediately reached out to my sources. Within hours, I heard firsthand accounts of troubling encounters with an outside gynecologist. Together with The Times’s reporters, we were able to follow up on those leads.
Type: There had been a lot of attention to the whistleblower’s account before you published your story in the New York Times. Why was the additional reporting important?
Wessler: The whistleblower's complaints focused mostly on the Irwin detention center’s abject failure to protect detainees and guards from the spreading pandemic. But buried in the document was another allegation that exploded in the press: that many women in Irwin had been sterilized without their consent.
We began reporting. Women I knew inside connected me with others who'd been sent to the gynecologist, and they started sending us their medical records. What emerged was a story not about mass hysterectomies, but about women, perhaps dozens of women, who had been sent to a single gynecologist and subjected to other invasive procedures, in many cases to remove cysts — procedures that they did not understand. Working with colleagues at The New York Times, we began interviewing detained women and deportees, sharing their files with a team of gynecologists who agreed to help us understand what had happened in each case. What we found, in two weeks of intense reporting, was a deeply troubling pattern of often-unnecessary gynecological procedures performed without the informed consent of patients.
Type: What are the primary challenges in reporting this kind of story?
Wessler: Detention centers cut people off from the outside by design, so reaching people and building trust is a constant challenge. Detainees’ fears of going public are often completely founded: Irwin, like many facilities, has severely punished detained people for speaking publicly about conditions inside.
I had already spent months building trust with people detained in Irwin, and those existing relationships allowed me to gain a level of access that would otherwise have been immensely difficult in such a short time.
Type: You’ve been reporting on immigration for a long time now. Why is this particular story important, and what does it tell us about the conditions of immigrants more broadly?
Wessler: As one detained woman told me: “The truth is that a catastrophe had to happen so that they would hear us.” Since the pandemic started, detainees in Irwin had been raising their voices, in any way they could, to call attention to rampant neglect and abuse inside the facility. I'd written about these efforts for months, but for the most part, detainees felt ignored. It was only after a whistleblower alleged a pattern of forced sterilizations that people outside, including powerful elected officials and federal investigative agencies, paid attention. It begs a question: why does abuse need to reach such an extreme form before officials are spurred to action?