Full Measure: Dawn Wooten
This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client, Dawn Wooten, and was originally published here.
We begin today with an interview with a remarkable woman: a whistleblower who exposed alleged medical abuses of prisoners that evoke images of another era when women deemed to be “unfit” for whatever reason were sterilized without their knowledge, or with coerced consent. The story starts in Ocilla, Georgia with a nurse named Dawn Wooten.
Dawn Wooten: I was the med-cart nurse, I was the sick cart nurse, I was the triage nurse.
Dawn Wooten worked at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, a private, medium-security prison. The prison had a contract with the federal government to detain illegal immigrants. And when Covid-19 hit in 2020, Wooten says what she saw exposed serious lapses, poor practices, and startling revelations.
Sharyl: You had a lot of ill detainees?
Wooten: Yes. I remember talking to a supervisor and seeing the forms that needed to be filled out, sent to the health department. They were not being sent to give an adequate number of Covid-positive inmates that we had inside the facility. The medication forms and the inmate forms that were supposed to be sent were being shredded.
Sharyl: Who was shredding the documents?
Wooten: There was a colleague of mine that was shredding the documents inside the facility.
Sharyl: You saw the person doing it?
She says that colleague, another nurse, told her they were only shredding duplicate records. Not true, says Wooten.
Wooten: I reported it to my supervisor and the response that she gave was, “Girl, she know better than that. Those are her license.”
Sharyl: What does that mean?
Wooten: In other words, I mean, “It’s on her.” Those were her license, so if she didn’t value her license, she knew she wasn’t supposed to be shredding, supervisor knew she wasn’t supposed to be shredding, but she wasn’t reprimanded for shredding.
Wooten also discovered, she says, other Covid forms being withheld from reporting to the local health department.
Sharyl: How did you come to find out that they weren’t being properly reported?
Wooten: The supervisor at the time had forms on her desk. And I inquired about those forms on her desk, and I asked her, “Were they supposed to be logged? Were we supposed to be turning those in?” She turned it over and told me to “get the hell off her desk.”
But Wooten’s most startling discovery was yet to come. It came when women inmates at the Irwin County Detention Center began approaching her, asking about mysterious surgical procedures they were getting that they did not fully understand.
Wooten: They would leave, go get treatment, and they would return back to the facility to be monitored. They would talk about the incisions that they have had or would have on their abdomen laparoscopically, and they realized that there was invasive procedures that were done.
Wooten began looking up their records. What she found was astonishing. She says a doctor was performing life-changing surgeries on the women that they say they didn’t want or properly consent to.
Sharyl: What procedures were they doing?
Wooten: Hysterectomies and tubal ligations and tubal removals, ovary removals, DNCs.
Sharyl: So you’re saying that physicians were sterilizing these women without their permission and unbeknownst to them?
Wooten: According to the records that were found and released, they were being sterilized without consent. And in my mind, I’m going to, “This can’t be happening. I don’t see what I see. I can’t be observing what I see. This can’t be the same for just about every chart. What is really going on?” was the question that I asked myself.
There is a long, documented history of coerced or involuntary sterilization in the U.S., with its roots found in “eugenics,” the idea of improving society through the planned breeding of people with desirable traits, and discouraging procreation among people deemed unfit.
Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger believed in using birth control and abortion to improve society through eugenics. She promoted those beliefs, speaking to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. And she endorsed a Supreme Court ruling that found states could forcibly sterilize “unfit” people without their consent.
Early research to develop a birth control pill was funded by Planned Parenthood and a leader in the League of Women Voters, Katharine McCormick, with tests conducted on as many as 1,500 Puerto Rican women without their informed consent.
Today, Planned Parenthood disavows its founder’s controversial beliefs and practices, stating that Sanger “undermined reproductive freedom and caused irreparable damage to the health and lives of generations of Black people” and other minorities.
But controversial practices extended well beyond Sanger’s circle. It’s reported that in the 60s and 70s, 670,000 women were sterilized in the U.S., including one in four Native American women, a disproportionate number of Blacks, and nearly one-third of the women in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, who were coerced by the notion that reducing births would help the island’s economy.
To Wooten, she was seeing shades of that past with illegal immigrant women at the Irwin County Detention Center.
Sharyl: How many women did you know of that this impacted?
Wooten: We’re talking 30 to 50. I left one afternoon teary-eyed and was wondering what do I do now that I’m uneased, and I work here, and I’m a nurse, and I’m afraid that if something transpires, I’m going to lose my license. I’m mandated to report what I see that is not humane treatment. I made a basis, and I talked to my supervisor, and of course I got the answer to leave it alone. I went internally to the head, and I asked questions, and I found myself being demoted and moved to a lesser status of employment.
Ultimately, Wooten says she decided to risk her career and go public with what she’d learned. With the help of the whistleblower group Government Accountability Project, she filed multiple complaints with federal bodies. A Senate committee in November concluded that “female detainees [at the Irwin County Detention Center] appear to have undergone excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures.”
The federal government did act on Wooten’s information. More than a year after she first began logging the alleged abuses, the Department of Homeland Security stopped using the Irwin County Detention Center to hold illegal immigrants, and ended its contract with the facility, stating, “We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.”
As for Wooten, for speaking out against a powerful employer in a small town, she claims she’s been blacklisted, and gone from working 12-hour shifts — to food stamps and welfare.
Sharyl: What came of you bringing these things to light?
Wooten: I was retaliated upon, unable to find employment that would allow me to work, blacklisting. No community support, no community help. I can’t go out in the community and grocery shop without somebody being negative or someone walking up and saying, “I bet you would’ve kept your mouth closed now.” Or I’ve gotten phone calls from nurses that say, “Hey, we know it was wrong. If there’s anything that we can do for you — but we just can’t sit in the seat that you’re sitting in at the moment.”
Today, Wooten’s complaint about whistleblower retaliation is being investigated by the Homeland Security Inspector General. But however that turns out, she says she followed the only course she saw possible.
Wooten: What I saw was the inhumane treatment of human beings, and lives being — decisions made for without consent. And what I did I would do again.
Sharyl (on-camera): Since Wooten spoke out, dozens of women have sued, claiming to be victims of unwanted medical procedures at the Irwin County Detention Center.