“A SILENT PANDEMIC”: NURSE AT ICE FACILITY BLOWS THE WHISTLE ON CORONAVIRUS DANGER
This article features Government Accountability Project and our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
A NURSE AT the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia is speaking out about a host of dangerous medical practices at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, says that Irwin, which is run by the private corporation LaSalle Corrections, has underreported Covid-19 cases, knowingly placed staff and detainees at risk of contracting the virus, neglected medical complaints, and refused to test symptomatic detainees, among other dangerous practices. On September 8, Wooten submitted a letter detailing her complaints to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, with the help of attorneys from the Government Accountability Project. The grim situation inside the facility reflects what she called “a silent pandemic” running rampant behind the prison bars.
“You don’t want to see what you’re seeing,” Wooten told The Intercept. “You’re responsible for the lives of others,” but Irwin management, in her eyes, downplayed the threat of the virus from the start.
When the first suspected case of Covid-19 arrived at Irwin in March, Wooten says, she overheard the warden, David Paulk, tell a member of the nursing staff not to tell anybody that the man recently transferred might have the coronavirus. “He didn’t want there to be mass panic,” she said. (Reached by phone, Paulk said he had no comment.) Another member of the medical staff ordered Wooten to triage the man, even though she didn’t have a mask. She refused. “They’re still not taking this seriously,” Wooten said. “Enough was enough.”
In a series of interviews with The Intercept, Wooten described how she repeatedly complained to staff leadership before she was demoted in early July from working full time to an on-call position, where she was only offered a few hours a month — a move she charges was retaliation for speaking up and demanding stricter medical safety protocols. She has worked at the facility for three years in three separate stints as a licensed practical nurse, and has over 10 years of experience working as a nurse in prisons.
Her own health was imperiled while working at Irwin during the outbreak. She has sickle cell anemia, and although she told her supervisors her doctor had warned her that exposure to the coronavirus could be deadly, management at Irwin neglected to tell her that detainees she had contact with were symptomatic and, in three cases, had tested positive for Covid-19.
Wooten’s account was bolstered by interviews with another current member of Irwin’s medical staff — who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation — and four people currently or recently detained there.
The legal advocacy group Project South also submitted a complaint to the OIG on Wooten’s behalf, which also included similar testimony collected from interviews with detainees. Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney with the group, told The Intercept, “Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years — gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care, and unsanitary living conditions.”
LaSalle — which runs 18 detention centers throughout the South, capable of holding over 13,000 people — isn’t the only for-profit detention company to face scrutiny for dangerous mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. But as the virus took hold in the region this summer, a pattern emerged of alleged abuses in LaSalle facilities. In July, medical staff at the LaSalle-owned Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana submitted a letter to Congress detailing troubling allegations, including that LaSalle management withheld personal protective equipment from both staff and detainees, dismissed positive Covid-19 test results, and ignored symptoms. In the same month, medically vulnerable asylum-seekers detained at Richwood told The Intercept they were handcuffed, pepper-sprayed in the face, and thrown into solitary confinement after protesting the dangerous conditions. One of the men was transferred to River Correctional, another LaSalle-run detention center, where he told The Intercept that management there also neglected to take proper medical precautions to stop Covid-19’s spread. Asylum-seekers have described similar abuses at LaSalle-run Winn Correctional Center.
A spokesperson for LaSalle declined to respond to a detailed list of questions, saying only, “LaSalle Corrections is firmly committed to the health and welfare of those in our care. We are deeply committed to delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments.” ICE also declined to comment.
In July, LaSalle’s CEO Rodney Cooper submitted a letter to Congress outlining LaSalle’s response to Covid-19, claiming that the company was being “diligent in operating our facilities at the highest level,” and stating that no LaSalle detainees have “succumbed” to Covid-19. In fact, at least two LaSalle guards and one member of medical staff have died of the disease.
People detained at Irwin have been protesting since the first weeks of the pandemic, and have faced punishment from staff. A series of hunger strikes and protests chronicled in the New York Times Magazine in early June brought increased scrutiny to the facility, but according to Wooten, little has changed over the months. The perilous conditions the detainees decried earlier this summer continue, she said.
“I would cry,” Wooten said, reflecting on what she had seen after a shift. She worried about the detainees locked up and unable to protect themselves, but also about contracting the virus herself, imperiling her own health, and bringing it home to her children. “I’ve got a kid with asthma,” she said.
Lack of Testing Leads to Underreporting
According to ICE, 31 people detained at Irwin have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began. But Wooten suspects that there were most likely at least 50 by early July, when she was demoted, based on the number of detainees she personally knew who had tested positive, and what she heard from her colleagues. The other member of the medical staff agreed with her estimation.
Wooten maintains that management at Irwin has been underreporting cases of Covid-19 to ICE, the state of Georgia, as well as to LaSalle headquarters, and not conducting sufficient tests. Even when people had Covid-19 symptoms or had been in contact with people who had tested positive, only those individuals or other people who complained about symptoms were tested. She described one instance in which a person in a crowded dorm tested positive, and only his bunkmate was subsequently also tested. “Everybody in that dorm should have been tested,” Wooten said.
Wooten was warned of “wasting tests” on people she suspected of being infected.
In her complaint to the OIG, Wooten claimed that the director of nurses “routinely rejected” symptomatic detainees’ requests to be tested. Other medical staff were also unsympathetic. “He ain’t got no damn corona, Wooten,” she was once told by a co-worker when she inquired about testing a detainee. Another detainee asking for a test, she said, was told, “Get your ass back in that room.” Wooten was also warned of “wasting tests” on people she suspected of being infected.
“‘Everybody want to be sick with corona, everybody want corona,’” she said other nurses would often say.
According to Wooten, ICE had purchased two testing machines for Irwin, which arrived in June, and which, she claimed, could deliver results in eight minutes. But to her knowledge, no staff had been trained to use them, and the machines were only used twice before being locked away. Instead, medical staff collected swabs from detainee testing and drove them in their personal vehicles to the local hospital to be processed, which was against protocol and inevitably meant delayed results.
“I was told by [management] that they were not going to be used and she was not going to put them out, because she didn’t want us testing each other,” Wooten said. “They were still sending people to the hospital and had these machines in the facility.”
The virus also spread among staff. According to Wooten, more than 15 LaSalle employees she knows personally have been infected with Covid-19; she provided the names of at least 12 staff members, including both correctional staff and health care workers, who tested positive.
The list included Marian Cole, the health services administrator who hired Wooten at Irwin. Cole had told Wooten she was being extra careful to avoid infection, traveling only from the facility to her home. But in May, Cole fell ill and passed away from complications from the virus.
Management at the facility said Cole had contracted the virus at a family event. “I knew better,” Wooten said. “And me, being who I am, said, ‘That’s not true.’ [Cole] told me she didn’t go anywhere but here and home.” (Cole’s daughter, reached for comment, did not want to discuss her mother’s passing.)
Wooten’s account of systematic undercounting of the true spread of the virus accords with what has been reported at other facilities, where ICE has resisted testing because it didn’t have space to quarantine people or ignored glaring symptoms. Detainees at Irwin, echoing those held at other detention centers, also said they were afraid to report their symptoms because they would be locked in solitary confinement, with little medical attention. “It is complete torture, because it’s like a punishment,” one immigrant said, who declined to give their name for fear of reprisals. “I didn’t want to say I had a pain in my throat, or that I had symptoms, because I didn’t want to go back to the punishment cell.”
In March, when fears of coronavirus began spreading rapidly, LaSalle acquired hundreds of N95 masks, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended for health care workers. Each member of the medical staff at Irwin was given a single mask, though Wooten specified that most N95 masks were reserved for high-ranking staff, even if they had less contact with detainees. No masks, at the time, were given to detainees. Wooten received her N95 mask and wore it consistently while doing her rounds. By May, however, the strap had broken. When she asked for a replacement mask, supervisors refused her request. Worried about protecting herself and the detainees, Wooten purchased a homemade cloth mask. The other member of the medical staff The Intercept spoke with said that management had hundreds of replacement masks they were hoarding in storage.
Detainees, meanwhile, had begun to make their own masks out of whatever materials they had at hand. By late April, LaSalle offered them masks — provided not by the company but donated by a local church group. But one detainee said the masks have not been replaced unless a family member pushes ICE and LaSalle for a new one.
Wooten said that on at least three occasions, management ordered her to interact with patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 without informing her of the diagnosis. “I had been in all of three of their faces,” Wooten said. When Wooten and other members of the staff confronted management about the situation, they were told that revealing detainees’ test results would be a HIPAA violation, an illegal disclosure of confidential personal medical information.
Gregory Dober, an adjunct professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and expert in health care ethics and law regarding incarcerated individuals, told The Intercept that alerting staff that a detainee has tested positive for coronavirus “would not be a HIPAA violation.” In fact, Dober said that the failure to inform staff of positive cases could constitute reckless disregard of the health of an inmate, detainee, or staff worker.
“A lot of the nurses were not doing nursing. They were just bodies in the building.”
The other medical worker, who is currently at LaSalle, said that even when they are working with patients in the medical area, not just doing the rounds with the general population, they don’t have enough gowns, face shields, or masks to properly protect themselves. Wooten also said the medical area was dirty: the floor infrequently swept, the exam tables not cleaned after use, and the area cluttered and dusty. “There was often blood on the floor that had not been cleaned up,” Wooten said. Detainees told The Intercept the bathrooms are dirty, and they had to disinfect phones and other materials themselves within their units.
Wooten described negligent or perfunctory care for sick detainees, which had been common before the beginning of the pandemic. She witnessed nurses shred and ignore “sick call” sheets, which detainees use to request nonemergency medical help, some of which included complaints of Covid-19 symptoms (the other member of the medical staff supported this claim, saying that the shredding of sick call sheets was common.)
“Every day she is shredding something and throwing it in her trash can,” Wooten said of another member of the medical staff. “I had one girl who put in about 12 sick calls. She was oozing out the belly button and nobody ever saw it.” In another case, a man with Covid-19 symptoms requested a test. He was isolated in solitary confinement, a swab was taken and sent to the hospital, and more than two weeks later, nobody had called the hospital to check for the test results. When Wooten called, she learned he had tested positive and informed the man herself.
Wooten was with another member of the nursing staff when she declared, without taking his temperature, that a man who had complained of a headache had a temperature of 97.7 F. She “pulled it out of the air,” Wooten said. “She falsified it. I watched her.” Wooten insisted that they actually take his temperature, and found that it was 101.8. Detainees with fevers were usually just given over-the-counter cold medication, Wooten said.
“A lot of the nurses were not doing nursing,” she said. “They were just bodies in the building.”
In response to the neglect and refusal to test detainees, Wooten described a “system” that detainees had developed, organizing to isolate people suspected to have Covid-19 near the door to the dormitory, both for their protection and to force the medical staff to test them. And yet, she overheard other medical staff tell detainees, “There was no Covid in here.” In one instance, according to Wooten, detainees staged a “mini-riot” to demand a Covid-19 test.
The frequent transfer of detainees between facilities compounded dangers. Wooten explained that while typically people were tested before being moved to Irwin, sometimes the transfer took place before the results of the test were in. Plus, newly arrived detainees were not always isolated from the others in the facility. She was also aware of at least one occasion in which a detainee who had tested positive for Covid-19 was deported to Mexico.
“They keep piling more people in here. They keep bringing more people in here, and in the end, it’s all about the money,” said a detained woman who had to wait over a week for her sick call. Wooten echoed the statement: “They get seen as a dollar sign. Their heads are counted not as humans but as dollars.”
The tinder-box scenario finally brought Wooten to a breaking point. After months of observing troubling medical conditions and, at times, going out of her way to care for detainees who had been ignored, Wooten began to raise the alarm with management in the facility.
“When I started talking about the unfairness and injustice,” pressuring staff to conduct more Covid-19 tests, “I was written up,” Wooten said. “It’s dog-eat-dog in there, at the expense of the detainees.”
By mid-June, Wooten had already been tested twice for Covid-19. And each time, due to her prior health concerns, she was instructed by the hospital to wait until her results arrived before returning to work. Medical records reviewed by The Intercept confirm her third Covid-19 test took place on June 21. In a letter to Wooten’s employers, the medical facility where she was tested requested Wooten be excused from work for 10 days, until her results were available and her symptoms — including muscle aches, headaches, and diarrhea — had gone away.
“It’s dog-eat-dog in there, at the expense of the detainees.”
After her first two tests, the doctors’ notes were sufficient to be excused from work. However, according to documents, on June 27 — six days after her third test — management reported her for “no call no show for her regular scheduled workday.” Her supervisors wrote that she was required “to call out each day she is off work.” They also pressured her to return to work, which she did, working two shifts on June 23 and June 25.
But as of June 27, there was no requirement for staff members to call in sick every day while awaiting Covid-19 test results; that policy was not implemented until July 1, according to a memo from facility management viewed by The Intercept. One day after the policy was in place, Wooten was demoted, reducing her from full-time status to “on-call,” and drastically cutting her hours. Wooten, who is Black, also said she suffered racism throughout the experience. White staff members who took time off for testing were given “Covid pay” and were not required to call in every day, she said.
With medical bills, sick family members, children to feed, rent to pay, and car payments to make, the reduction in her work hours was a serious blow. As her own health deteriorated and she suffered from consistent stress, Wooten relied on her eldest son to help pay off the car.
She says her demotion was an indirect threat to other health care staff at the facility who had expressed concerns, though more quietly.
“They’re afraid of being fired,” Wooten said. Irwin had treated her as an example, “I was thrown to the wolves.” But, she added, “I have nothing to lose at this point.”