An Interview with Dawn Wooten: A Cinderella Story

By Ian Herel

Here at Government Accountability Project, we continually ask the question of how we can create more transparency and accountability in our institutions, and we believe that it starts with whistleblowers. By providing expert legal counsel and leveraging whistleblower testimony with Congress, public interest partners, and the press, we ensure that those who disclose wrongdoing and abuses of power make a difference. Meanwhile, through our lobbying efforts to strengthen and expand whistleblower protection laws, we are helping make the world a safer place for those who act as witnesses to injustice.

We also highlight and uplift the stories of our courageous whistleblower clients, such as nurse Dawn Wooten, whose revelations of criminal medical-malpractice at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) incited public outcries for reform and justice in immigration. For her courageous action, Dawn was presented with the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award at the National Press Club in D.C. on September 15th, 2022.

At the eve of this event, I had lunch with Dawn and her daughter, Aukevia, and we spoke about Dawn’s “Cinderella experience” since going public: why she first became a nurse, the impact of her whistleblowing, and finally, her advice for others who witness injustice.

My conversation with Dawn started, and ended, with nursing. She began with a story from when she was 18: her grandmother was experiencing a sunstroke, and Dawn needed to take her to the hospital. At the time Dawn recalled wishing that she understood what was happening to her grandmother, so she could explain it to her and reassure her that she would be okay. “I realized then,” Dawn said, “that I wanted to be able to help and care for people whose illnesses made it difficult to care for themselves.”

Fourteen years later, in 2010, Dawn was a certified Licensed Practicing Nurse (LPN) and living in Southern Georgia. She had a few choices for employment – just up the road at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), which served as both a jail and ICE-contracted facility for immigrants in civil detention, there was a position with starting pay at $15/hour, compared to $9.75/hour at the local hospital. By 2019, this disparity had grown, and Dawn could earn $28/hour working in corrections, compared to the next-competitive position: $13/hour at the hospital. “You would have to drive hours to find a job that could compete with the pay ICDC offered,” Dawn told me. It was the same for certified detention officers too: when Dawn join ICDC in 2010, officers could make $13/hour in corrections compared to the $5.35 minimum wage.

Meanwhile, Dawn didn’t have any reservations about working in corrections, but instead saw it as a learning opportunity. She told me when she worked for ICDC, as much of her job was conflict resolution and emotional support for detainees as it was actual nursing practice. But it was her show of support and care for those that she worked with that eventually gained her the trust among inmates when they began to have concerns about operations they had received:

“Every day I’d come to work and there would be another list of names and numbers to look up in the system,” Dawn said: “Female detainees asking me, ‘Ms. Wooten, can you check up on this? Ms. Wooten, can you look up and see what they had done to me?”

Eventually, these lists would form the basis for Dawn’s findings that asylum-seeking women detainees were subjected to invasive and nonconsensual gynecological procedures at ICDC.

Despite what Dawn witnessed at Irwin County, Dawn continued to reinforce her love for nursing, and her desire beyond anything else to go back to her vocation: “I would die if I couldn’t nurse again,” she told me. “And I would rather die than do anything else.”

Dawn has spoken openly about the depression she has experienced since she blew the whistle, first internally, and then publicly, about failures to meet Covid-19 safety protocols at the facility as well as her findings that women immigrants had been undergoing hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures that rendered them sterile without informed consent.

Her allegations were damning and visceral, and were validated by the testimony of 57 female detainees who came forward with their own stories of being subjected to these unwanted and unnecessary procedures. Within a year, the Department of Homeland Security ordered ICE to sever its contract with LaSalle Corrections at ICDC, ending immigrant detention at that facility for good.

But as Dawn continually invoked over the day I spent with her, she feels like she is living a ‘Cinderella story’: her allegations, her impact, the speaking opportunities and the awards – each like a magnificent gala Dawn gets to attend every now and again. But for Dawn, there is always the return home to the wicked stepsisters.

Over the phone following the event, Dawn told me about life in Southern Georgia since she went public: “I’m $25,000 behind on rent because I’m seen as unemployable by my community,” she said. “I worked my whole life to get off food stamps, and now I’m back on government assistance – that doesn’t feel good.”

And while award ceremonies like the HMH Foundation applaud the courage it takes to blow the whistle publicly, Dawn said that her community “sees being a whistleblower like being a germ, a bacteria. When I started having concerns, the first people I went to were my supervisors – nurses, RN’s – but they completely brushed me off. And the city council was behind the facility all the way, so they all turned their backs on me.”

Indeed, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last year that for a county of less than 10,000 residents, the ICE-contracted ICDC had a extremely significant economic impact in the area: employing more than 200 people and spending over $10 million annually in payroll alone. Compare the facility’s regional economic impact with Irwin County’s 2020 public budget of only $5 million, and the picture of the county’s economic dependence on the facility begins to come to light. When Dawn threatened one of the city council’s most significant economic lifelines, the council took the side of the ICE-LaSalle contract over the human rights of the facility’s detainees and employees.

Meanwhile, Dawn suspects that many more women than have already been confirmed were subjected to nonconsensual gynecological procedures at ICDC, but were either deported or stayed silent to avoid retribution. It was these women whom Dawn drew attention to in her acceptance speech at the HMH awards saying, “After I blew the whistle, 57 women came forward publicly that they were victims, and many of these women were subsequently deported.” She told me afterwards that if you check the deportation list from Irwin County, “9 times out of 10, you’ll see that a woman who was deported had also complained about the conditions at the facility.”

For those 57 women who were at least able to give their testimony, their class action lawsuit is still pending. The DHS Office of the Inspector General initiated four separate investigations based on the complaints filed more than two years ago: an investigation into the medical misconduct including ICDC’s inadequate response to Covid-19; an investigation into the approval process for gynecological procedures at ICDC; an audit focusing on how surgical procedures are authorized and approved for detained immigrants across all ICE detention facilities; and its statutorily-mandated investigation into Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower retaliation claim. Only the first investigation has been completed.

The investigation into Dawn’s whistleblower retaliation claim could, with either favorable findings or a settlement, bring justice and necessary relief for Dawn and her family, who have suffered greatly since Dawn went public: “In the beginning, we were stuck in the house, or had to hide in a hotel because of death threats,” said Aukevia Wooten, Dawn’s daughter. “I feel like my social life and time as a teenager were cut short.”

Dana Gold, Dawn’s lead counsel at Government Accountability Project also weighed in: “It is really hard to be a whistleblower,” she said, “But it has been the strength of Dawn’s purpose that has allowed her to stay resilient throughout the costs of retaliation – the depression, the blacklisting, the harassment, the economic fragility as a single mom with five children.

“But only one outlet has covered her post-disclosure story,” Dana added. That was an interview with Sarah Stillman at New Yorker Radio Hour, a piece which “raised the issue of working class whistleblowers being different than middle-class professionals who blow the whistle, and being less able to bear the unfortunately predictable costs of retaliation.”

“All the more reason why we are so frustrated the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has not yet issued findings in Dawn’s whistleblower retaliation complaint—the costs she has suffered for essentially filling the gaps in DHS’s own oversight weaknesses have been extraordinarily high, and have the risk of deterring others from exposing other abuses.”

Dawn confirmed that the retaliation against her has sent a message to her colleagues. Despite being ordered closed by DHS and having its ICE-contract severed, Irwin County Detention is now back up and running, this time holding federal inmates under the same conditions. Nurses there confided to Dawn that they continue to see malpractice at the Georgia facility: “They tell me,” Dawn said, “‘We respect you, and we see what you’re doing, but we just can’t sit in that seat you’re sitting in right now.”

Moreover, the financial incentives and lack of oversight that lead to abuses – and the need for whistleblowers – still continues in the detentions industry. While DHS ended the ICE contract at ICDC, this was only one of 19 facilities operated by LaSalle Corrections under ICE. One LaSalle-run facility, in Richwood, Louisiana, was also home to a group of Government Accountability Project whistleblower-clients in 2020: in that case, detention officers similarly raised alarms about failures to manage Covid-19 at the facility, which endangered employees and detainees alike.

Despite what colleagues and others who fear retaliation say, Dawn’s stays resolute in her message: “I’m committed to the nursing profession’s ‘standards of care’ practices. That means that as a nurse, I’m a mandated reporter. So I can’t be caring for someone, and know that they are not being adequately cared for – that their bodily autonomy is being violated.

“For anyone else who is witnessing something happening at their workplace, well they might be mandated reporters too, and if so, they could lose their licenses for witnessing malpractice and not speaking up.

“You have to do what’s correct,” she concluded, “but I can’t tell you what to expect – what you’re risking.”

For Aukevia Wooten, despite the retaliation, she is proud of her mom’s courage and thinks it will inspire others too: “The more I get to travel and see her at events like the HMH awards, the more I’m glad she did what she did. It encouraged women to stand up to tell their truth, and I think it will encourage others to speak out when they witness injustice too.

“If we got through the death threats and the fear, so can they.”

Back in Georgia, where both Dawn and Aukevia are studying for their RN degrees, I asked Dawn what she thought the proper ending to her Cinderella story would be:

“In my story,” she said, “Cinderella gets retribution. She gets her RN degree, and then she gets to teach other nurses about ethics.

“Cinderella gets justice too – she gets to make the standards of practice so high at these facilities that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Ian Herel is a Communications Associate for Government Accountability Project