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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, September 15, 2020

Guest: Debbie Berkowitz


A whistleblower speaks out about alleged abuse of women in detention facilities. Meat plants collectively fined less than $30,000 after more than 2000 workers die across the country.


CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: That is "ALL IN" for this Thursday evening.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. I appreciate it.

And thanks to you at home for joining us at this hour.

It was not the first Trump administration scandal. It was certainly, certainly, certainly not the last. But in terms of permanent damage done to humans, in terms of the severity of the damage deliberately done to humans, the Trump administration, no matter what else they do, they will never, ever get out from the shadow of the fact that they really did as a policy and a deliberate practice, they really did take little kids away from their moms and dads.

It will never not be true that we all lived in a time when the White House ordered the forcible systematic removal of children from their parents at the border. They outfitted the kids with little Mylar blankets and a lump of padding that was supposed to qualify as a mattress, and they told them to sleep on the floor behind chain link fence alone in federal detention without their moms and dads. Thousands of kids taken from their parents by the U.S. government with the U.S. government having no plan in place on how or when to get those kids back to their parents.

When we realized that our government was doing this, when we realized that the Trump administration had ordered this, there was a deafening roar of public outcry and the Trump administration eventually stopped the child separation policy well, at least they said they stopped it since the Trump administration announced that supposed end for the child separation policy, more than 1,000 more kids have been taken away from their parents at the southern border and put into U.S. government custody, separate and apart from their parents.

Child separations are still happening. They are just happening in the shadows now without the administration admitting that this is still their policy. No matter what else happens in this administration, whether this administration lasts four more months or four more years, history will always remember this, right?

This is a -- a foundational, moral catastrophe that will stand alone in the history books, even alongside the COVID, even alongside all of the other things that have happened over these 3-1/2 disastrous years. But even though that decision, to take kids away from their parents deliberately, even though that decision to do something systematically that none of us on our worst day could ever imagine doing personally on a human level to a young child, right, you can't imagine yourself ever being dark enough, right, ever having an evil enough impulse to take a living kid away from their parent who is trying to hold on to them, to separate them indefinitely with no way to get them back.

You can't even imagine that in yourself, no matter -- whatever else you've done in your life, you couldn't do it, but our government ordered and they did it systematically, and that will never, ever be alongside anything else they've done. But even still, with that standing alone, there have been weird, almost perverse offshoots of that story in terms of the behavior of the Trump administration and its appointees.

Now, one of them we covered pretty extensively on this show when it first came to light. It was about a specific Trump appointee, an anti-abortion activist named Scott Lloyd, who was put in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Scott Lloyd had been a lifelong anti-abortion activist. That's all he'd ever done in life. He was therefore an odd choice to lead the Office of Refugee Resettlement. For one thing, he had precisely zero prior experience of anything having to do with resettling refugees, so why should he run the refugee resettlement office?

For unexplained reasons, they gave him the job anyway, and once he was installed there in 2017, Mr. Lloyd decided that he would use the power of his office, the fact that people in custody under his authority were essentially under his control, he would use that power to block a teenage rape victim who was living alone in a shelter run by Scott Lloyd's office, the fact he tried to use the fact that that gave him power over her to block her from obtaining abortion because she wanted to get an abortion so she would not be forced to bear the child of her rapist. He decided he would block that.

Now, in this country, it doesn't matter if you are a refugee. It doesn't matter if you are not American by birth. It doesn't matter if you are here as a legal immigrant or otherwise. Under our Constitution, everybody is guaranteed a constitutional right to obtain an abortion, if they want one, and in the case of this 17-year-old girl who had been raped, she wanted one.

But this Trump appointee, Scott Lloyd, who knows why he was in this job in the first place, he decided that he would use his power to block this girl from getting it, right? He's the guy in charge of this agency that has all these kids living in its custody. He decided he would use that power to take it upon himself to block any young woman under his purview for getting an abortion for any reason, starting with that 17-year-old girl who had been raped.

And in the end, that 17-year-old girl sued. And she won. And she was able to get the abortion and the lawsuit around her case turned up something else about the way the Trump administration was running this operation and this guy Scott Lloyd they had put in charge of all these young people.

"The New York Times" was first to break the news that Scott Lloyd had instructed his staff at the Office of Refugee Resettlement that they should give him a spreadsheet every week listing one by one, individually, girls who are in the custody of his agency who are pregnant. That spreadsheet eventually became public, thanks to a FOIA request, and when it became public, it was revealed to all of us that not only was Scott Lloyd keeping tabs on every pregnant young woman in his agency's custody, he was tracking all the girls menstrual cycles as well.

I should tell you, he was tracking these girls' periods after the court told him he needed to stop interfering in these girls' medical care decisions. Even after that court order telling him to get out of these decisions, to get out of the middle of this, he kept tracking their periods anyway, individually, girl by girl, month by month, because that's what he was into.

And I know this is dark stuff. I mean, it was rough reporting all of this, frankly, the first time around. It's one of those things that, like, you know, you come to work and hope there's no new developments on that story.

But the reason I'm bringing it all up again tonight is because now we have arrived at the next chapter in this same story. And I'm not going to dance around it. I'm just going to say it, and I guess we should have seen it coming, but still, it's a shock.

A nurse who works at an ICE detention facility in Georgia has just contributed to a whistle-blower complaint. She says that in her time working at this ICE detention facility, it's a detention center in Irwin County, Georgia. She says that immigrant women at that facility have told her they have routinely been sent to a gynecologist who has performed unnecessary procedures on them, including hysterectomies just to underscore that, the allegation here is that this is a federal facility and they have been sending immigrant women in their care, in their custody to a doctor who has removed their reproductive organs for no medical reason and without them consenting to it.

Let me read you some of the passages from the complaint here, which was written on behalf of that nurse as well as some of the women detainees. It was written by an advocacy group called Project South. I will tell you in advance, although you can probably see it coming, that it's a little bill upsetting.

All right. From the complaint wrote, quote, a detained the immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at the Irwin County detention center between October and September 2019, five different women, between October, November and December 2019, over that three-month period, five different women who had had a hysterectomy done. When she talked to them about the surgery, the women, quote, reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.

The detainee said, quote, when I met all these women who had the surgeries I thought this was, like, an experimental concentration camp it was like they're experimenting with our bodies. The nurse who contributed to this whistle-blower complaint explains it like this, quote: Everybody this doctor sees has a hysterectomy, just about everybody. He's even taken out the wrong ovary on one detained immigrant woman.

She was supposed to get her left ovary removed because she had a cyst on the left ovary he took out the right one. She was upset. She had to go back to take the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy she still wanted children. She has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can't bear kids. She says she was not all the way out under anesthesia and heard the doctor tell the nurse that he took out the wrong ovary.

The nurse says she and her fellow nurses, quote, questioned among ourselves, like, goodness, he's taking everybody's stuff out, that's his specialty he's the uterus collector. She says, quote, I know that's ugly. Is he collecting these things or something? Everybody he sees he's taking all their uteruses out or he's taking their tubes out, what in the world?

According to this nurse, this whistle-blower, she alleges in this complaint that on several occasion, women told her that this doctor performed hysterectomies, removed the uteruses of these refugee women for no medical reason without their proper informed consent. And this nurse, the whistle-blower, talked about it today with my colleague Jacob Soboroff. Watch.


DAWN WOOTEN, WHISTLEBLOWER AND NURSE AT ICE DETENTION CENTER: The ladies would put in to see the gynecologist for whatever reason that they were wanting to be seen for, and they were having hysterectomies they would come back often times and question, why did I have to have a hysterectomy? I didn't have an answer.

JACOB SOBOROFF, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: They would ask you directly

WOOTEN: Why would I -- why did I have to have a hysterectomy nobody explained this to me. I didn't know I was undergoing this. I had one lady to tell me that she was a young girl. If she had known that she was going to have a hysterectomy, she wouldn't have went.

SOBOROFF: You're quoted in the complaint as saying, that's his specialty, he's the uterus collector. Is that how people refer to this doctor?

WOOTEN: That's how the detainees referred to this physician. They referred to him as -- I had a detainee that asked me, well, what is he doing, Ms. Wooten, collecting all of our uteruses and I just looked at her puzzled because I didn't have an answer.

SOBOROFF: I almost don't know what to say hearing you describe this. As a nurse giving care to these inmates, how do you process this what is this like?

WOOTEN: You -- you're in awe, because you don't have -- you don't have a valid answer for them. It's mind-blowing and it's mind-boggling. When you get in your vehicle after a 12-hour shift and you cry yourself home and you're the only one in the vehicle asking why, what is going on, what is happening? I don't have an answer why is nobody not hearing them or taking them, so to speak, seriously? I don't have an answer.

So shift after shift, then it gets to be to where you don't want to report to work because you don't have an answer. You don't have a reason and they're going to ask you why.

SOBOROFF: What happened to the women that you spoke with who had these hysterectomies, do you know?

WOOTEN: A lot of them were deported back to their countries. I don't know if they were transferring others to other facilities.

SOBOROFF: Do you think what -- do you think what happened to the women that you spoke with is going to happen to other women in the future?

WOOTEN: Me, personally, if there's not a change, there's not going to be a change. If there's not any correction, there's not going to be any correction. If there are not people like myself that are brave enough to have a voice for other people and not be so afraid to speak out, a lot of people desire to speak out, but are afraid of losing their job.

I spoke out, I was demoted. So I was made the example of I whistle blew because I love to do what I love to do. And if it was my son or my daughter, my mother or my father, that was in that situation, then I would want somebody to speak out on their behalf as well.

SOBOROFF: You obviously know the detainees well inside Irwin. What would be your message to them today?

WOOTEN: My message to the detainees today would be all hope is not lost that things last for only a short while. But there is a beacon light. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I apologize on behalf Irwin County detention center for what goes on concerning them in the facility. And I understand totally, not in that situation, but I understand totally what it feels like to be overlooked and neglected just not neglected in silence.


MADDOW: I should tell you that these allegations from this whistle-blower are not isolated complaints. NBC News has spoken to four different lawyers who represent women who were detained in that federal facility in Georgia who are making similar claims.

According to NBC's reporting, one of the lawyers represents two women who were detained at the facility who say they received hysterectomies that they believe may have been unnecessary. Another lawyer represents a woman who says she went to this doctor's office for an exam. The exam left her with bruising.

An attorney for the doctor against whom these allegations have been made says his client, quote, vigorously denies these allegations and will be cleared of any wrongdoing when the facts come out.

For its part, ICE, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, refused to comment on the allegations from those lawyers who spoke to NBC News. But they have released a statement tonight in response to the allegations and the whistleblower complaint.

It says in part: These accusations will be fully investigated by an independent office. However, ICE vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures. The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency's highest priorities. Any assertion or claim to the contrary is false and intentionally misleading.

The statement goes on to say, quote, according to ICE data, since 2018, only two individuals at Irwin County Detention Center were referred to certified credentialed that medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities for hysterectomies.

Whether or not the women were referred for hysterectomies or not, more than two women are saying they got them and more than two women are telling lawyers as part of this complaint that they don't know why they got them and they don't think they needed them.

Joining us now is Jacob Soboroff, MSNBC correspondent and author, of course, of "Separated: Inside an American Tragedy", which is the seminal book on the child separation policy that I think is relevant context here.

Jacob, thanks for making time to talk about this reporting that you've done today. I know it's been a really busy day.

SOBOROFF: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having me here.

MADDOW: So you have this remarkable interview with this whistle-blower, this nurse who has worked at this facility in Georgia. Chris Hayes was also able to talk to her live along with her lawyer in the last hour.

But to be clear, as compelling as her story is, her first-person story is, the allegations aren't coming solely from her, right? There are things that are -- that other people and that other lawyers for other people have declared as part of this complaint that would seem to back up what she's saying.

SOBOROFF: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. For us, it was important to corroborate the claims in this whistle-blower complaint I wanted to speak to Ms. Wooten myself, which obviously I did, but also to corroborate the allegations of the migrants who were detailed in the whistleblower complaint.

So, Julia and I spoke to four lawyers today, and every one of them has said that they had a client who had contact with this doctor where they were told one thing and ultimately they were -- they came out of this either having a procedure or being recommended to have a procedure that was deeply invasive and, of course, at least in two of those cases, the hysterectomies took place. And one of those lawyers even told us they went to the detention facility, complained about the treatment from this doctor, but no change was ever made.

MADDOW: And to be clear, the complaints here from these women and their lawyers who are speaking on their behalf is essentially that they -- not that they never should have been sent tout see a gynecologist, but, rather, whatever was going on with them, they did not understand that the treatment was going to be a hysterectomy and then in some cases the allegation here is that the hysterectomies, whether or not the women consented to them in the first place, they were not medically necessary.

SOBOROFF: No, that's right. And there are other allegations of other procedures including pap smears where women are told you've got ovarian cysts or cancer, and that turned out not to be the case and those procedures happened anyway.

And I do want to say, Rachel, at the time we published the article, we went to the facility itself, LaSalle Corrections Corporation, which owns and operates the Irwin facility for ICE, and they didn't have anything to say to us. We did get a comment before we came to air and I'd like to read that to you if that's okay as well.

MADDOW: Please, yeah.

SOBOROFF: They wanted us to let everyone know that they say they adhere to performance-based standards and LaSalle corrections has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of inappropriate behavior in our facilities and takes such allegations of such mistreatments seriously. Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC.

But, you know, that goes against what we heard from at least one of the attorneys today, which was when these allegations came up from their clients, she went to the correctional facility, she told them she didn't want her patient seeing that doctor and patients continued to see that doctor as Ms. Wooten details very graphically.

And I think, you know, this -- this statement that they considered him the uterus collector is graphic, it's hard to listen to, but that's what they're talking about, according to Ms. Wooten, inside this facility, and she's not the only one saying so.

MADDOW: Jacob, what should happen here legally in terms of this complaint? Obviously, she's casting herself as a whistle-blower. There is significant corroboration for the worst of the allegations that she's making. ICE is saying that this will be investigated. The facility is saying that whether or not it's investigated, they deny that any of this happened. The doctor is saying essentially the same thing.

What do you expect to happen in terms of this being looked into in terms of these women's claims being investigated and potentially there being accountability here?

SOBOROFF: So, the Office of the Inspector General, at the Department of Homeland Security will open an investigation. The Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within the Department of Homeland Security will look at this as well. And they were copied, essentially, on the complaint.

And what I think that this gets to, one of the lawyers said to me, which I really want to underscore here, is that while she didn't think that this is a conspiracy, a large conspiracy by the government necessarily to have these procedures on these women, it is emblematic of systematic lack of oversight for medical care and also just well-being and welfare of immigrants in immigration detention, as well as you mentioned ORR and what happened with Scott Lloyd.

With family separations, we didn't know what was happening because by couldn't see inside these facilities and immigration lawyers have stressed to me over and over again today that this particular example is uniquely heinous is the allegations are ultimately proven to be true. But it's one of many examples in this system which proceed, frankly, this administration where immigration detention is a place where people come to seek refuge, seek asylum, but are subjected to prison-like conditions where they have virtually no recourse when something like this happens. Or at least that's the way that they feel.

Obviously, the government would say differently and, of course, their lawyers would disagree.

MADDOW: Yeah. Prison-like conditions and worse. I mean, the -- I know the -- there's a reason that ICE put their denial in the terms immediately about whether this is human experimentation on these essentially powerless detainees and refugees, I understand why they went right at that because of the way that resonates with us who know any history here.

But the part -- the fact that this is part of the government, we're training people who are working even at how to remove working for the U.S. government to treat human beings the way that immigrants and refugees have been treated, it's just, I mean, it's on all of us, in terms of what the government is saying we stand for and what they'll do in our name.

SOBOROFF: There's no doubt about it, Rachel. That's why it's important we talk about these stories. I know these are hard stories to talk about, but these are real human beings undergoing what is alleged to be truly, truly horrific treatment at the hands of a so-called medical professional. And that's why now you have the Department of Homeland Security will be forced to investigate this, and we have heard the top officials in Congress, on the Hill, also called for investigations as well and so now that has to play its course.

MADDOW: MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff -- Jacob, thank you so much for your reporting on this and helping us put it in context. I really appreciate it.

SOBOROFF: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. Much more to get to in the news tonight. Stay with us.


MADDOW: When supporters of President Trump convened in Freeland, Michigan, a few days ago for one of his no masks required rallies, people had to drive up to that event and line up to get into that event, alongside this truck, a sound truck playing this sound.



MADDOW: The Democratic Party sent this truck to Trump's Michigan rally at the end of last week, playing on a loop the sound of President Trump speaking to Bob Woodward about coronavirus. I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.

The visuals on the side of the truck listing the number of Americans -- can you cut the sound on that, please? Listening the number of Americans dead from coronavirus and the number of businesses closed over that out-loud loop of the president admitting he plays it down, even just playing it here while I'm trying to explain something else, it kind of gets inside your brain and won't let you go.

That was late last week. Then this weekend, the president held another rally, this one indoors with thousands of people. The only indoor events in the whole country with thousands of people and no masks required right now, the only events of that kind in the whole country. Because of the pandemic, are the president's rallies.

The president was asked by "The Las Vegas Review Journal" about the coronavirus risk of him holding this big, indoor rally. He told them, quote, I'm on a stage and it's very far away. And so, I'm not at all concerned.

Listen, the president thinks he'll be fine. He gets tested whenever he wants. He's up on stage away from the people with no mask, now shouting and chanting and screaming and breathing on each other. So, they'll infect each other. He doesn't worry about that. He'll be fine. He's far away from them up on the stage.

Since then, Bob Woodward has released more tapes about the president talking about coronavirus to CNN and to CBS. In addition to the initial tapes that Woodward provided to "The Washington Post."

And I know you've seen the reporting on this in terms of what's in Woodward's book and what the president told him about coronavirus, but it really is something just to hear him say it, to hear him admit it, even now this week he is holding no-mask events and telling people it's no big deal and that it will go away like magic and kids are immune and all the rest.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don't have to touch things, right?

But the air, you just breathe the air. That's how it's passed and so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your, you know, your -- even your strenuous flus. This is more deadly, you know? So this is deadly stuff.

Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob, it's not just old, older.


TRUMP: -- young people plenty of young people.

Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you --

WOODWARD: Sure, I want you to be.

TRUMP: I wanted to -- I wanted to always play down I still like playing it down.

This thing is a killer that gets you. If you're the wrong person, you don't have a chance.

WOODWARD: Yes, yes, exactly. It's a monster --

TRUMP: So this rips you apart.

WOODWARD: This is a scourge and --

TRUMP: It's a plague.

And, Bob, it's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it.


MADDOW: That's the president speaking in private it's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it. It's the plague. This rips you apart. If you're the wrong person, you don't have a chance. This thing is a killer if it gets you.

That's him in private talking about what he actually knows and then in public, you know, he's putting thousands of people inside indoor rallies and making fun of masks and social distancing.


TRUMP: They have -- you can't have political rallies. That's because of me, because if Biden were here, he'd have about three people. Did you ever see him with the little circles, the circle? You know why he puts the circle, because he wants to be correct with COVID because they can't get anybody to fill up a room, so they put these big circles.

It's true. He can't get anybody to fill nobody wants to go -- oh, boy. You know, the fake news -- look all at all those people back there the fake news.


That's true.


MADDOW: That's the way the president is campaigning on COVID. It's no big deal, don't wear masks, we should all get thousands of people together for rallies, including indoors. Don't obey stay-at-home orders or shutdowns.

Anybody who is doing that and trying to pay attention to the ways you're supposed to behave and not transmit COVID, they're just wusses, they're lying to you. That's not really what they mean. That's how the president is campaigning on COVID.

The Biden campaign, though, has the gift to campaign on COVID using the president's own words against him. With stunts like that soundtrack playing the president's remarks that he wants to play it down, I always like to play it down, but also with new ads like this one.


AD ANNOUNCER: The president caught red-handed lying about coronavirus. Publicly saying --

TRUMP: Children are almost immune.

AD ANNOUNCER: -- secretly saying the truth.

TRUMP: This is deadly stuff. It's not just old. Plenty of young people.

AD ANNOUNCER: Millions of jobs lost and 190,000 Americans dead. You took an oath to protect our citizens, Mr. President, these deaths are on your hands.

It's time to put America back in the hands of a president who will protect the country and tell us the truth.

BIDEN: I'm Joe Biden, and I approve this message


MADDOW: We are hitting the home stretch of the campaign. We're less than 50 days out now.

Voters in six or seven states, I think, can already start sending in their votes. If you -- if you can do that already, you should vote early this year, if you can. But this is a -- this is a live beast, both in terms of the way it plays in the election and everything else. I mean, this is something that is upon us every day in ways that are still unpredictable.

Today, for example, the LSU football coach just sort of casually announced that most of that entire top-ranked football team has contracted COVID. Most of the whole LSU football team.

Up in Maine, the story we've been following about one wedding held in Maine last month where they didn't follow crowd size restrictions and people didn't wear masks, as we reported a couple of weeks ago, that wedding has been identified as the source of the largest COVID outbreak in Maine. That outbreak is still spreading out across the state. It's now blamed for at least seven deaths in the state, none of which are among people who actually attended the wedding. It's all people who the wedding attendees brought the disease home to and then their family members and associates spread it at their workplaces, including at a jail in Maine and a senior living facility that has now had multiple deaths.

The pastor who conducted that wedding and who subsequently appears to have brought home a pretty good-sized COVID outbreak to his church in Maine, that pastor is continuing to hold in-person indoor congregate services while the outbreak that he appears to have caused in his own church is spreading through his congregation. And why is he doing that because he thinks it's all a hoax.

In South Dakota, for which most of the national headlines these days are about the Republican attorney general of the state killing a man with his car on the highway and reporting it to the local sheriff as in hitting a deer and not a person. I know.

The local press in South Dakota is, meanwhile, focused pretty intently on the fact that South Dakota now has one of the worst per capita infection rates in the country. South Dakota's new case rate has recently been roughly quadruple the national rate of new infections while the state's Republican Governor Kristi Noem continues to say that she doesn't believe the so-called experts about the masks, she won't require in the state. And she recently admitted quite cheerfully taking $5 million of the federal COVID relief money for her state and instead spending it on tourism ads for South Dakota.

Come visit South Dakota, our COVID new infection rates are quadruple the rest of the country and our country's the worst in the world and we don't wear masks. Our governor thinks it's not really happening. So ditch the mask and come play on the side of the road here.

I mean, that's what they spent their COVID money on. They spent $5 million in COVID money on tourism ads because the governor doesn't think it's that big a deal.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota infection rates are, like, highest or second highest in the country.

The pandemic is alive and well, and the news about it is flabbergasting in some new way every day. And we are about to hit the terrible milestone of 200,000 Americans dead from this thing. And I don't know if it will make a difference in terms of the country making its choice between Trump and Biden. But the response to COVID at the federal level continuous to no just be bad. It's getting worse and in out-loud, obvious public ways.

Just tonight in a town hall thing with ABC News, the president tried and kind of failed in his attempt -- he wasn't able to spit it out, but he was trying to endorse the idea of herd immunity for the United States, which in the absence of a vaccine is basically the idea of letting everybody get infected.


TRUMP: And you'll develop -- you'll develop herd -- like a herd mentality, it's going to be. It's going to be herd developed and that's going to happen. That will all happen


MADDOW: Herd mentality. Herd mentality? You mean herd immunity? That's what you're pursuing for us as a country and you don't even know what it is, and you think it might be the same thing as herd mentality?

Tonight, one of the stories that we're following is a new decision by the Trump administration about coronavirus that will blow your mind. It involves two multibillion dollar companies and that story is next.


MADDOW: Her name is Tin Aye. She was a refugee who fled to the United States in 2007. Shortly after coming to this country, she got a job at the JBS meat processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. That is where she worked for over 12 years until late March when she contracted COVID.

Tin Aye's daughter says that at the time, she was coughing and feverish, her symptoms eventually got bad enough that Ms. Aye went to the company's clinic to be checked out when she got to that clinic, her daughter says the clinic told her, quote, she just had a normal cold, so they sent her back to work.

But within just a few days, Ms. Aye was so sick, she had to be admitted into the intensive care unit at the local hospital. And while she was there, her daughter gave birth to a son, Tin Aye's first grandson, a grandson she would never get to meet. Shortly before being placed on a ventilator, Tin Aye called her daughter and said, I feel really bad I couldn't see my grandson. I really want to see him.

After that, she says her daughter cried and hung up the phone. She didn't have time. They were rushing the surgery for her, rushing to get her on the ventilator because she couldn't breathe anymore.

Tin Aye was one of six workers at the Greeley, Colorado, meatpacking plant who ultimately died from COVID. One workplace, six deaths. But this was obviously not a crisis confined to just that one plant in Colorado.

We covered this story from the beginning as cases started to skyrocket at meat processing plants all over the country. There is nothing inherent about meatpacking as an activity that spreads the virus.

The reason these plants prove to be such wildly efficient transmitters of the virus among their workers, was because of the working conditions there, which is something defined by the companies who run these places. And what made them so efficient for this COVID epidemic is the fact that workers were working in conditions in which the meat plants found them to be efficiently arrayed, packed together, in very close quarters for very long shifts, with no way to stay away from each other, and in the early weeks and months especially, no way to safely mask up or protect themselves. And so, anybody infected in that plant very quickly infected everybody else.

At facilities like the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, more than 1,200 people ultimately tested positive for the virus. In Logansport, Indiana, more than 1,000 infections were ultimately tied to a Tyson Foods plant in that town. By early May, four plants in Iowa had racked up 1,600 cases among them. There are outbreaks at meat plants in Minnesota and Nebraska and Illinois and California, and Wisconsin, and in nearly every other state where these plants operated.

And yet very early on, we saw efforts on the part of the federal government and states themselves to force these meat processing facilities to stay open no matter the human toll, and in some cases against local health authorities telling them they had to shut down as a danger.

To this day, we have strong reason to believe that the CDC's scientific guidance that was ultimately issued to the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, we have reason to believe that scientific advice may have been purposely watered down by the Trump administration to try to keep the meat industry happy.

Later, we saw Republican governors in multiple states crack down on people's ability to even know about outbreaks in specific meatpacking plants by hiding that data and not letting it be announced when they had multiple people testing positive at individual plants, and as egregious as all of that has been over these past few months, now something has just been -- there have been two new revelations in the last several days that have put even me back on my heels. And we've been covering this stuff from the beginning and that story's next.

Stay with us.


MADDOW: Jails and prisons, senior living facilities and nursing homes, and meatpacking plants. If you want to but a bullseye on the work environments in which you as an American worker are most likely to get COVID infected on the job, it has been this same stark list from the beginning.

In the meatpacking industry itself, so far, more than 42,000 people, 42,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive, at least 200 of them have died. Despite that, federal regulators this week issued their first fines of any kind to these facilities for not keeping their workers safe in this epidemic. More than 200 people dead and the total fined assessed against meatpacking companies are less than $30,000 combined. Less than $30,000 in fines split between two meatpacking companies that between them had something like $66 billion in revenue last year, JBS and Smithfield.

Despite the deaths of multiple employees of the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, despite the casualties of the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, both of those companies say they plan to contest these meager, tiny little fines that have been handed down against those facilities by OSHA.

Then on top of that, their stunning news that ProPublica was first to report yesterday that has to do with the executive order President Trump signed earlier this year ordering that all meat packing plants had to remain open. It now appears that executive order was actually first drafted by the meat industry itself, he just signed it. In fact, just one week before the order was issued, the industry's trade group sent top administration officials a draft executive order bearing striking similarities to the one the president signed.

Despite the fact that their very own workers were on the frontlines contract thing disease by the thousands, they were running the government response ordering that those plants had to stay hope any way. And hundreds of people died.

Joining us now is Debbie Berkowitz, director of the National Employment Law Project's Worker Health and Safety Program. She previously served for six years as chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration.

Ms. Berkowitz, thank you for making time to be with us tonight. I appreciate you being here.


MADDOW: Let me just ask it the way that I put this strikes you as the right way to approach this or if I'm looking at this the wrong way around. Is this the appropriate context and the right way to understand sort of the scale of the problem here versus the scale of the attempted correction?

BERKOWITZ: Oh, yes, totally. I mean, this is stunning, Rachel and you got this right this is an industry that decided to thumb its nose at the guidance, the basic guidance the Centers for Disease Control put out in late March that the way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 was six feet apart and social distancing, and they just decided not to do it and decided that they would keep their plants going, every other industry was changing, rearranging, restructuring. So many of our businesses were closed to protect workers and protect member of the community from the spread of COVID.

But this industry kept on going, and then after -- and in these plants, more meat packing workers died in these plants than died in whole meat packing industry a year ago. And in these plants, they got these tiny citations, it's like less than a slap on the wrist, which is like a get out of jail free card, and it's sort of a signal to the industry, it's okay. There are no consequences for you failing to protect the safety and health of these vital, essential workers who are giving us and producing, you know, the meat and poultry that we eat.

MADDOW: There was a powerful editorial in the "Greeley Tribune", which is home to Greeley, Colorado, where the JBS plant where so many workers died. And I thought -- they made an interesting point that I want to put you as an expert on this. It's about the size of the fine effectively being worse than the -- the small size of the fine effectively being worse than no fine, because that essentially tells the company they're going to be able to do stuff like this and never face anything, even in the worst circumstances.

The editors of the "Greeley Tribune" say, there's nothing nice to say about the actions taken by OSHA when it chose to levees a $15,000 fine on JBS, months after six Greeley plant workers and a corporate employee from COVID. JBS recorded a net revenue of $52 billion last year. That means this fine is worth 0.0003 percent of last year's profits.


MADDOW: It's the equivalent of fining someone making $50,000 a year 1.5 cents. What they're -- their point is that JBS is actually must -- even as they're contesting the fine, they must be welcoming this, because this means this is the worst that's going to happen to you, this is carte blanche for them to do anything they want to their workers.

BERKOWITZ: Right not going to offer any protection to workers. In fact, I think workers are totally more terrified in the meat and poultry industry than they were before this, because now, the industry knows there's no consequences for them not providing safe conditions. There are no consequences for the meat industry forcing them to work shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow eight hours a day, to produce meat.

And, you know, we talked to the local unions there, and they were totally stunned but really the message that has gone out from this administration is workers, we agree with the meat industry, you guys are expendable. And it's just, you know, you know, these workers are, you know, solid, you know, blue collar workers who really support our economy and the law is very clear, that companies have to protect them except in this administration when -- and this is very different than any other Republican administration where if there were bad acting companies or industries that cut corners on safety, the -- you know, OSHA would go after them.

Ronald Reagan issued one of the highest fines in the history of the agency to a meat packing plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, now owned by Tyson Foods. It was $5.7 million.

And OSHA decided here that they probably really didn't even want to issue a citation, but they gave one they only gave one tiny citation to say, OK, we did enforcement. But in the end, Rachel, as you said, and as the Greeley paper said, and they're right, this is going to do more harm than any good, because it's like if you're speeding and you get a speeding ticket of 50 cents rather than $150, you're going to be like oh, I could get 30 of these, I'll just continue to speed.

And I think that's the message to the industry, just keep on keeping on you don't have to protect your workers.

MADDOW: Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff at OSHA, now the director of the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project, Ms. Berkowitz, thanks for being with us and hemming us understand this. Good to have you here.

BERKOWITZ: Thanks so much, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. We'll be right back. Stay with us.


MADDOW: That is going to do it for us tonight. I will tell you, it is 49 days from the presidential election right now. It's two weeks from the presidential debate from the first debate between Trump and Biden.

Can you believe that's only two weeks from now? Eat your Wheaties. Stay hydrated.

I'll see you again tomorrow night.


Good evening, Lawrence.


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