FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
September 14, 2020
Whistleblowing Nurse from Detention Center in Georgia Reports Unsafe Practices that Promote the Spread of COVID-19 in ICE Detention
Government Accountability Project and Project South client urges DHS OIG to address danger to worker, immigrant, and public safety
WASHINGTON – Today, Government Accountability Project and Project South filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General outlining concerns from client and whistleblower Ms. Dawn Wooten, LPN, about dangerously unhealthy practices at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia — a private prison which houses immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICDC is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private company that runs immigration detention facilities in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana.
ICDC has a long track record of human rights violations. As such, Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigration Support Network also filed a broader complaint today with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. This complaint highlights jarring accounts from detained immigrants and Ms. Wooten regarding the deliberate lack of medical care, unsafe work practices, and absence of adequate protection against COVID-19 for detained immigrants and employees alike.
In July 2020, LaSalle’s executive director appeared before the House Committee on Homeland Security and testified that, “To date, no one in our care and custody has succumbed to COVID-19.”
Despite this testimony, Government Accountability Project and Project South charge ICDC for failure to comply with mandatory CDC rules and guidelines regarding COVID-19 and for promoting — rather than preventing — the spread of COVID-19 among staff, detained immigrants, and the public at large. Ms. Wooten is employed as a nurse at ICDC, where she provides direct care to detained immigrants.
The letter summarizes the detailed disclosures Ms. Wooten made to the DHS Office of Inspector General, concerning ICDC’s grossly mismanaged response to the novel coronavirus and the consequent danger to public health and safety.
Ms. Wooten’s disclosures about gross mismanagement include:
- Deliberately denying or delaying medical care for detained immigrants both before and during the coronavirus pandemic, including immigrants symptomatic for COVID-19;
- Refusing to test symptomatic detained immigrants for COVID-19;
- Failing to use two rapid-response COVID-19 testing machines;
- Prescribing over-the-counter cold medications to detained immigrants with COVID-19 symptoms instead of proper treatment;
- Failing to isolate detained immigrants who had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19;
- Failing to quarantine detained immigrants who had close contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases;
- Failing to maintain hygiene and sanitation standards for medical exam rooms and equipment, which includes often leaving blood on the floor;
- Failing to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical and correctional staff who have close and prolonged contact with detained immigrants with confirmed cases of COVID-19;
- Failing to enforce or encourage CDC social-distancing practices among detained immigrants and staff;
- Reprimanding staff who encouraged others to follow CDC’s mandatory social-distancing practices;
- Requiring symptomatic staff to continue to work in the facility and threatening staff with discipline if they refuse to work in dangerous conditions;
- Violating CDC rules concerning the transfer of immigrants with confirmed cases of COVID-19; and
- Systematically undercounting and underreporting COVID-19 cases at ICDC.
The disclosure by Ms. Wooten corroborates similar COVID-19 concerns raised by several of Government Accountability Project’s other clients, anonymous employees of LaSalle at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana, as well as by Drs. Scott Allen and Josiah “Jody” Rich, nationally recognized experts in detention healthcare. Drs. Allen and Rich serve as medical subject matter experts for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within DHS. Drs. Allen and Rich raised the alarm internally to DHS in February 2020 and then to Congress in March 2020, warning about the imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrants, staff, and the public posed by the spread of COVID-19 in the congregate setting of ICE detention. Dr. Allen reiterated those warnings at a Senate Judiciary Hearing, “Examining Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19,” on June 2, 2020.
Government Accountability Project Staff Attorney John Whitty commented:
“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.”
Project South Staff Attorney Priyanka Bhatt commented:
“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.”
Contact: Andrew Harman, Director of Communications
Phone: (202) 457-0034 x156
Contact: Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South Legal and Advocacy Director
Government Accountability Project
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Project South is a Southern-based leadership development organization that creates spaces for movement building. We work with communities pushed forward by the struggle– to strengthen leadership and to provide popular political and economic education for personal and social transformation. We build relationships with organizations and networks across the US and global South to inform our local work and to engage in bottom-up movement building for social and economic justice.