Prison company accused of performing unwanted surgeries has troubling record of deaths

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LaSalle Corrections oversees a number of facilities, at least one of which has a shocking record of deaths in custody.

Immigrant women in a detention facility in Georgia were subjected to invasive unnecessary procedures without their full understanding or consent, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

That detention center happens to be run by a private prison company with a troubling record of alleged mismanagement and abuse.

The story builds on a complaint filed by the Atlanta-based nonprofit Project South alleging widespread neglect by the medical staff at the Irwin County Detention Center. The complaint included details about doctors performing unwanted hysterectomies on immigrants being held there, as first reported by the Intercept and Law and Crime.

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The Times on Tuesday confirmed 16 cases of women who claimed that they didn't fully understand what had happened to them.

Multiple gynecological experts who reviewed the women's medical records concluded that the procedures, administered for conditions like benign cysts and normal menstrual pain, weren't necessary. Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer, a clinical professor at George Washington University and the Washington, D.C., chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the outlet that she would have prescribed "an Advil" in one of the cases she reviewed.

The women were deported following their surgeries.

Irwin County Detention Center is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a private prison company that oversees jails and prisons in addition to immigration detention facilities. At least one jail overseen by LaSalle has a shocking record of in custody deaths.

According to a recent lawsuit, 46-year-old Holly Barlow-Austin, who was HIV-positive and suffered from bipolar disorder, died after months of neglect while being held at the Bi-State Justice Center — which is situated on the border of Texas and Arkansas — for a probation violation. Reason reported that she had been checked into the center with normal vitals in early April.

In the weeks that followed, the suit claims, jail staff allegedly failed to properly administer her medication, give her water, or take her to the hospital despite clear signs of physical and mental distress. On one occasion, a nurse allegedly suggested that Barlow-Austin was simply pretending to be more sick than she actually was.

Video footage shows her blindly clawing around in her cell, clutching her head in pain, and soiling herself at one point.

"By June, the lawsuit alleges, Barlow-Austin was blind as a result of her various undertreated conditions. Video shows her in distress, emaciated, flailing around on the floor of her jail cell, repeatedly soiling herself," Reason wrote.

Barlow-Austin died in June of 2019. As Reason notes, her cause of death was listed as "fungemia/sepsis due to fungus, cryptococcal meningitis, HIV/AIDS, and accelerated hypertension."

The jail was also named in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging staffers had left a 20-year-old diabetic to die after withholding her medicine. Morgan Angerbauer died of ketoacidosis, according to the lawsuit, and was being held in a medical observation cell mere feet from a nurses station at the time. The Texarkana Gazette reported that she had been vomiting and was unable to stand in the hours preceding her death.

Lawyers for Angerbauer's family eventually reached a confidential settlement with LaSalle in February this year.

In 2015, 35-year-old Michael Sabbie, who suffered from diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, also died while in custody at Bi-State.

According to a civil rights lawsuit filed by his family in 2017, Sabbie had been having trouble breathing for nearly 24 hours prior to his death. Despite having been found on the floor of his cell and taken to a nurse's station, he was allegedly sent back to his cell a short while later, without receiving proper medical tests or care.

He collapsed again on the way back. According to jail records, a guard accused him of "creating a disturbance" and "feining [sic] illness and difficultly breathing."

As HuffPost reported, Sabbie appeared in court later that day, where a bailiff noticed he was "coughing and sweating heavily around his head and face area."

"The judge said it sounded like Sabbie had asthma or bronchitis and asked if he wanted to sit down. Sabbie reportedly told the judge he had been 'spitting up blood' and that he needed to go to the hospital," the outlet wrote.

Upon returning to the jail, Sabbie stopped to catch his breath. Video footage shows him hunched over in a tripod position, commonly seen with asthmatics suffering an attack or respiratory episode. Rather than helping him, a guard rushes toward him in that video, throwing him to the ground. Multiple officers pile on and hold him down, pepper spraying him at one point.

According to the civil rights complaint, Sabbie was then taken back to a nurse's station and "examined" for less than a minute before being thrown into the shower and then his cell again. Guards were told to check in on him every 30 minutes, but allegedly did not.

He was found dead the following morning.

Erik Heipt, the lawyer representing Barlow-Austin's family in their wrongful death lawsuit, has likened her treatment at the LaSalle-run Irwin Detention Center to a war crime.

"What happened to Holly Barlow-Austin was cruel and inhumane. It was beyond all bounds of human decency," Heipt told Reason. "It was tantamount to torture. If a prisoner of war were treated this way, it would be a war crime."

LaSalle did not reply to the Time's request for comment this week.

When the American Independent Foundation reached out to LaSalle management's media team for comment Tuesday, a woman who answered the phone replied, "I'm not interested in doing that, but thank you" and hung up.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.