Whistleblower complaint alleges widespread abuse on migrant detainees
This article features Government Accountability Project and our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
A whistleblower report filed Monday with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleges widespread medical malpractice at a Georgia immigration detention center.
The malpractice allegations include accusations against the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) of subpar COVID-19 treatment — including denial of testing and treatment — and “red flags regarding the rate at which hysterectomies are performed on immigrant women.”
The report, filed by four human rights advocacy groups, is based on unnamed detainee accounts and information provided by Dawn Wooten, an ICDC nurse turned protected whistleblower.
“[Monday], we filed an [Office of Inspector General] complaint that includes jarring information regarding the lack of medical care occurring inside Irwin County Detention Center including medical staff deliberately shredding medical request forms from detained immigrants without looking at them, medical staff falsifying records, denial of COVID-19 testing for detained immigrants, and very concerning accounts from detained immigrants and a protected whistleblower regarding hysterectomies,” said Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney with Project South, one of the groups that filed the report.
“We hope that this complaint will illustrate the dire need to thoroughly investigate and close the facility,” said Bhatt.
According to Wooten and interviews with detainees, the women at ICDC have expressed “concerns about how many women have received a hysterectomy while detained at ICDC.”
The detainees allege that women are sent to a gynecologist who seemingly over-prescribes the procedure, and in some cases ICDC officials and the doctor have failed to fully explain the consequences or receive full consent from patients subjected to hysterectomies.
“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” said Wooten, according to the report.
“These immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them,” said Wooten.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday reacted to the reports, saying they recall “some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought.”
The 27-page report details a laundry list of accusations against the facility, which houses detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private prison operator.
LaSalle did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams said the agency does not comment on matters before the Office of Inspector General (OIG), but “takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results.”
“That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve,” wrote Williams.
The groups that filed the complaint say they’ve been documenting violations at ICDC “for years.”
The Government Accountability Project (GAP), an organization that calls itself the “global leader in whistleblower advocacy,” teamed up with Project South on Wooten’s complaint, which was referenced in the broader complaint including testimony from the unnamed detainees.
The GAP/Project South complaint based on Wooten’s individual testimony does not include the detainee’s allegations about hysterectomies, but lists accusations regarding the facility’s hygienic conditions and medical services.
Those accusations include everything from undercounting COVID-19 cases, deliberate denial of medical care to potential COVID-19 patients to refusing tests for the disease, failing to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements on personal protective equipment and social distancing, and violating rules limiting transfer of immigration detainees with COVID-19 symptoms.
Those violations mirror conditions at a Louisiana facility operated by LaSalle, as well as findings by Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, who are physician consultants for DHS on prison health care, according to a statement by Project South and GAP.
“Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures reveal not only gross mismanagement from LaSalle leadership, but actions that deliberately put the health of detainees, workers, and the public at risk. It is up to DHS to heed the warnings of employee whistleblowers like Ms. Wooten and take action to enforce protective measures against the rampant spread of COVID-19,” said GAP staff attorney John Whitty.