Whistleblower reports dangerous conditions, unneeded hysterectomies at Georgia ICE center

This article features Government Accountability Project and our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.

IRWIN COUNTY, Ga. — A federal complaint filed this week alleges that an immigration detention center in Irwin County is conducting unnecessary hysterectomies, ignoring medical complaints by detained immigrants, isn’t following COVID-19 guidelines, and isn’t providing proper food or water to detainees.

The complaint was filed Monday with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General against LaSalle Corrections, the private company that operates the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. It was filed by Atlanta-based group Project South in conjunction with the Government Accountability Project, which issued its own press release Monday about the allegations. The GAP also states that Project South along with the support of Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, South Georgia Immigrant Support Network has filed a broader complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.

The complaint is partly based on details from a whistleblower identified as Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked at ICDC. It also uses information from interviews and other communication with detainees at the facility.

Read the complaint here.

The complaint states that problems reported at ICDC include:

  • Refusing to test detainees for COVID-19 even if they’ve been exposed to the virus and are symptomatic
  • Shredding detainees’ medical requests or ignoring them for days or weeks at a time
  • ICDC employees making up medical records
  • Lack of testing for COVID-19, and not informing employees and detainees of who has contracted the virus
  • Performing hysterectomies on immigrant women detained at ICDC at a rate that “raises red flags”
  • Hiding details from employees and detainees about who has tested positive for coronavirus
  • Improper quarantining of new detainees
  • Continuously going through with transfers of detainees, even if they test positive for coronavirus
  • Maintaining unsanitary conditions including serving detainees moldy and bug-ridden food and not properly cleaning the facility in accordance with CDC guidelines
  • Not providing proper access to Personal Protective Equipment or cleaning supplies for detainees to sanitize their space
  • Prescribing over-the-counter medications for detainees showing COVID-19 symptoms
  • Unsanitary conditions in the medical and quarantine units at ICDC
  • Reprimanding detained immigrants who speak out with solitary confinement
  • Reprimanding employees who speak out on the conditions alleged at ICDC

The GAP states that because of these practices, ICDC has promoted the spread of COVID-19 at its facility “among staff, detained immigrants, and the public at large.”

“For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center. 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 at Irwin. We call on DHS to conduct an investigation into the Irwin County Detention Center in order to protect the health and safety of the detained immigrants and the workers there.” — Project South Staff Attorney Priyanka Bhatt

Wooten states that she has been punished for speaking out and witnessed other employees who have been reprimanded for doing the same. She says in July 2020 she was “suddenly demoted” from her position as a full-time nurse to a position as an “as-needed” nurse.

Wooten says this happened after she took sick days in June because she had COVID-19 symptoms. She says despite waiting on her COVID-19 results to get back in, she was required to work but refused to do so. Wooten says she was given conflicting instructions on whether or not she needed to call in every day while she quarantined. Upon returning to work she was formally reprimanded by ICDC Warden David Paulk. Wooten also says that the doctor’s notes she sent to her supervisor weren’t formally added to her medical records.

Since Wooten says she witnessed another employee who wasn’t reprimanded for the same thing, she believes her punishment was a direct result of her “asking hard questions about testing detained immigrants for COVID-19 and warning officers when detained immigrants they are in contact with have tested positive for COVID-19.

Groups hold a press briefing to speak on allegations against the Irwin County Detention Center on September 15, 2020/Source: FOX 5 Atlanta

ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams responded to our request for comment Tuesday by stating that “in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

The full statement that Williams provided is below:

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ICE 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.”

ICE is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody. All ICE facilities are subject to regular inspections, both announced and unannounced, and the Irwin County Detention Center has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s rigorous Performance Based National Detention Standards.

Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody. Staffing for detainees includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers like physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and a physician. Care decisions are made by medical personnel, not law enforcement. Detainees also have access to dental care and 24-hour emergency care. Pursuant to its commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody, ICE spends more than $260 million annually on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

As to ICE’s response to COVID-19, in general, the health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees. For additional information on the extensive steps ICE has taken, and continues to take, to stem the potential spread of COVID-19 please review https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus.

Georgia congressman Austin Scott, of which Irwin is one of counties in his district, issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:

“My office is aware of the whistleblower complaint at the Irwin County Detention Center that was filed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General. We have reached out to DHS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and they have assured us that they take all allegations seriously and are firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in their custody. We will continue to be in contact with them as they investigate these claims.”