“If There is Not a Change, There is Not Going to be a Change”
Dawn Wooten’s Impact, One Year Later
At this time last year, over 270 thousand new cases of COVID-19 were recorded, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first woman to lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, and devastating wildfires out west injected climate change into the presidential campaign. Another major story was about to break in rural Georgia though, where nurse Dawn Wooten publicly blew the whistle on hazardous conditions found at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a private prison which housed immigrants detained by Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
Ms. Wooten alleged not only egregious failures to protect immigrants in detention and workers from COVID-19, but also numerous instances of immigrant women undergoing hysterectomies and other invasive gynecological procedures with dubious consent. This disclosure, which quickly garnered viral media attention last fall, was a shocking glimpse into the kinds of abuses found within ICE detention facilities. While revealing atrocities at ICDC, the disclosure further corroborated other anonymous whistleblower disclosures of similar COVID-19 mismanagement at another detention center run by the same company, LaSalle Corrections.
Ms. Wooten’s original disclosure described instances of mismanagement and blatant abuse including:
- Deliberately denying or delaying medical care for detained immigrants both before and during the coronavirus pandemic, including immigrants symptomatic for COVID-19;
- Failing to isolate detained immigrants who had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19;
- Failing to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical and correctional staff who have close and prolonged contact with detained immigrants with confirmed cases of COVID-19;
- Requiring symptomatic staff to continue to work in the facility and threatening staff with discipline if they refuse to work in dangerous conditions;
- Systematically undercounting and underreporting COVID-19 cases at ICDC; and
- Performing hysterectomies on numerous immigrant women with dubious consent.
Thanks to Ms. Wooten’s choice to blow the whistle, a group of over 170 members of Congress demanded a thorough and immediate investigation into ICDC by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG). Fifty-seven survivors of unwanted medical procedures from ICDC also came forward to support Ms. Wooten’s statement and to eventually file a class action lawsuit against the facility themselves, which helped lead to the removal of all detained immigrant women in ICDC in May. Finally, on May 20, 2021, following a long and tumultuous year of advocacy to remove all detained immigrants from ICDC, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Mayorkas directed ICE to sever its contract with LaSalle at ICDC for immigrant detention, noting “we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” By September 3, 2021, the last of the immigrants were finally removed from ICDC.
When asked in an interview with MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff last fall what words she would share to the detained immigrant women following her initial disclosure, Ms. Wooten said “All hope is not lost, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” And indeed, a year now after her disclosure, that light at the end of the tunnel is actualized because ICDC is no longer detaining immigrants.
Despite the ethical courage Dawn exhibited in stepping forward to bring about positive change for detained immigrants, Ms. Wooten recognized as “the whistleblower,” has unfortunately suffered retaliation for her truth-telling. LaSalle, which has still not terminated Ms. Wooten, has never called her for shifts despite posting regularly for available nursing positions over the past year. Ms. Wooten has still has not secured gainful employment due to local resentment of her whistleblowing, even though her profession is in high demand. As a single, Black mother of five children—all of whom recently contracted COVID-19—the experience of whistleblowing has created untold anxiety and strain on Dawn and her whole family. Ms. Wooten’s experience highlights the critical need to ensure that when federal employees and contractors blow the whistle on serious abuses, they are protected, not punished.
Today, we honor Ms. Wooten: for the integrity it took to blow the whistle even when aware of the consequences of retaliation, and for the subsequent change she catalyzed. We also call for change in the way whistleblowers like Ms. Wooten are treated—they deserve protection, not punishment, and to be valued rather than vilified.