Ms. Dawn Wooten, LPN, worked as a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention center in Ocilla, Georgia. As COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire in early 2020, particularly in congregate settings like immigration detention facilities, Ms. Wooten became gravely concerned about failures at ICDC to comply with CDC guidelines and protect immigrants and workers alike from the coronavirus and other misconduct, including shredding detainees’ requests for medical care. In addition, numerous immigrant women detainees began to ask her about gynecological procedures they underwent that made them sterile without understanding what they experienced or why. Ms. Wooten began raising concerns internally to her supervisors about the harmful conditions and medical mistreatment at ICDC, only to find herself demoted to an on-call position with no subsequent calls for work. Unable to stay silent knowing about the risk of ongoing harm to the immigrants detained at ICDC, she secured Government Accountability Project’s pro bono legal representation to assist her in filing whistleblower complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) in September 2020.
Ms. Wooten and her explosive disclosures went viral, inciting passionate calls for reform from immigration justice organizations, medical professionals, and members of Congress. More than 170 members of Congress called for investigations into conditions at ICDC; a Congressional delegation visited ICDC to speak with Ms. Wooten as well as women survivors of medical mistreatment; and the House of Representatives passed a resolution formally condemning the forced medical procedures, citing Ms. Wooten’s complaint. Congress and the Office of Inspector General initiated investigations into the disclosures and into the unlawful retaliation against Ms. Wooten for her whistleblowing.
On May 20, 2021, DHS Secretary Mayorkas ordered that ICE end the use of ICDC as an immigration detention facility based on the findings of ongoing investigations spurred by Ms. Wooten and the women survivors who came forward, stating: “We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” On September 4, 2021, it was reported that all immigrants had been removed from ICDC and transferred to other ICE detention facilities.
On November 15, 2022, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs conducted a hearing on Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention. Information shared in the hearing validated the reports of Ms. Wooten from 2020. For instance, disturbingly, though ICDC held only 4% of the entire female population in ICE custody, ICE contracted medical provider for ICDC Dr. Mahendra Amin was responsible for 90% of the four types of invasive gynecological procedures performed on the detained ICE population nationwide. Furthermore, the Assistant Director of the ICE Health Service Corps (“IHSC”), Stewart D. Smith, DHSc, indicated that from at least 2017-2020, the IHSC had virtually no oversight systems in place to vet contracted off-site medical providers or review the medical care they provided to people in ICE custody. Indeed, Smith testified that the IHSC was not aware of concerns with off-site medical providers until DHS received Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower disclosures.
Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing catalyzed enormous and rapid change. But Ms. Wooten’s ethical courage came at a price. LaSalle, which has still never officially terminated Ms. Wooten, has never called her for shifts despite posting regularly for desperately needed nursing positions. Recognized locally as “the whistleblower,” Ms. Wooten was unable for months to secure employment—as a nurse during a time of unprecedented demand—because of resentment or fear of her whistleblowing. As a single, Black mother of five children, the experience of whistleblowing has produced enormous emotional, mental, physical and financial strain on Ms. Wooten and her family.
Ms. Wooten, however, has no regrets for speaking out about what she discovered at ICDC. She was named a Giraffe Hero by the nonprofit Giraffe Heroes Project, 3 was chosen as a subject for the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series, and has been the recipient of several national awards, including the 2021 Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage, the Feleta Wilson award from the Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association, the 2022 Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Award, and the 2022 HMH Foundation First Amendment Award for her commitment to truth-telling and human rights. Government Accountability Project is honored to represent Ms. Wooten and continues to fight for justice for Ms. Wooten for the wrongful retaliation she experienced for her whistleblowing.