FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
October 4, 2022
Government Accountability Project and Project South Call on DHS OIG to Issue Findings
Investigations Into Irwin County Detention Center Abuses Pending for More Than Two Years
Today, Government Accountability Project and Project South, along with 73 supporting organizations, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General Joseph Cuffari calling for the results of multiple investigations into complaints they filed more than two years ago on behalf of whistleblower nurse Dawn Wooten and detained immigrant women regarding medical misconduct, which included unnecessary, nonconsensual gynecological procedures at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in south Georgia. The DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) has yet to issue findings in Ms. Wooten’s original whistleblower retaliation complaint despite her central role in bringing these abuses to light, nor has it provided a meaningful update on the status of its investigation despite numerous inquiries from Ms. Wooten’s attorneys.
Ms. Dawn Wooten, LPN, was a nurse at ICDC, an ICE-contracted detention center run by LaSalle Corrections, where she witnessed critical failures to protect immigrants in detention and workers from COVID-19. Ms. Wooten also disclosed that detained women were undergoing gynecological procedures without informed consent. On September 8, 2020, Government Accountability Project and Project South filed a private whistleblower retaliation complaint on behalf of Ms. Wooten with the DHS OIG alleging that Ms. Wooten had suffered unlawful retaliation—she was demoted from a full-time position to an on-call position with no work apparently available—after raising concerns internally to her supervisors and management.
For years, advocates in Georgia have been raising red flags about ICDC. In 2017, Project South and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights released a report on human rights abuses and constitutional violations at ICDC, including lack of medical care, lack of mental healthcare, unsanitary conditions, lack of prenatal care for women, aggressive use of solitary confinement and more. Since the release of that report, Project South and grassroots partners such as Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and Georgia Detention Watch continued to raise concerns about the treatment of immigrants detained at ICDC, including by advocating with the Georgia congressional delegation, the United Nations, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
On September 14, 2020, Project South, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, and Georgia Detention Watch filed a public complaint with DHS OIG which included detailed allegations from Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower disclosures along with accounts from several immigrant women detained at ICDC. Government Accountability Project and Project South also shared these concerns with Congress. The shocking disclosures that immigrant women were undergoing invasive procedures went viral in the media, inciting passionate calls for reform from immigrant justice organizations, medical professionals, and members of Congress.
The impact of the disclosures was profound: 57 survivors of medical mistreatment at ICDC came forward and are currently seeking justice through a class-action lawsuit, and multiple investigations were launched by Congress, the Department of Justice, and the DHS OIG. DHS OIG initiated four investigations: 1) an investigation into the medical misconduct including ICDC’s inadequate response to Covid-19; 2) an investigation into the approval process for gynecological procedures at ICDC; 3) an audit focusing on how surgical procedures are authorized and approved for detained immigrants across all ICE detention facilities; and 4) its statutorily-mandated investigation into Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower retaliation claim.
Even before those investigative results were released, in May 2021, DHS Secretary Mayorkas ordered ICE to sever its contract with ICDC, and all immigrant detention at the ICDC ceased by September 2021. On June 28, 2021, Project South and Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic were granted a groundbreaking hearing in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights where the commission declared the abuses that immigrant women endured at Irwin County Detention Center as “torture.” In January 2022, DHS OIG issued the results of its first investigation; the remaining investigations into the approval process for surgeries at ICDC and across all ICE detention centers remain pending. Likewise, DHS OIG has still not yet issued findings in Ms. Wooten’s original whistleblower retaliation complaint, despite her role catalyzing the investigations into the abuse.
Dana Gold, Government Accountability Project Senior Counsel and lawyer for Ms. Wooten stated:
“Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing, combined with the voices of women in detention, served as a substitute for DHS’s own oversight weaknesses that allowed the dangerous medical misconduct to occur at ICDC. But Ms. Wooten, a single, Black mother of five children, has waited more than two years for the DHS OIG to issue findings in her whistleblower retaliation case, all while continuing to suffer the costs of being constructively discharged from ICDC and being denied employment from dozens of open nursing positions due to local awareness and resentment of her whistleblowing. The DHS OIG owes Ms. Wooten and the immigrant women she spoke up for more than just a status report on its multiple investigations. It owes them answers, justice, and a debt of gratitude for their brave decisions to speak out about the abuses at ICDC.”
Priyanka Bhatt, Senior Staff Attorney at Project South stated:
“It has now been over two years since Ms. Wooten and immigrant women bravely came forward with reports of medical abuses at the Irwin County Detention Center. These women risked everything so that others in ICE custody would not suffer what they suffered. Yet two years later, they are still waiting for recourse. Instead of providing a modicum of accountability, ICE simply transferred from Irwin and began detaining immigrant women at the Stewart County Detention Center, a deadly ICE prison about 100 miles from Irwin with a track record of human rights violations. What detained immigrants in ICE custody in Georgia have endured is vile, from non-consensual invasive gynecological procedures to forced labor to sexual assault to death. One non-consensual procedure is too many; one assault is too many; one death is too many. We are calling on DHS OIG to provide transparent, timely, and meaningful oversight into the many abuses in ICE prisons in Georgia that have been brought forward. The brave survivors of Irwin and all survivors of abuse in ICE prisons deserve justice.”
Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Email: [email protected]
Contact: Shelley Danzy, Project South Communications Director
Email: [email protected]
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 was founded as the Institute to Eliminate Poverty & Genocide in 1986. Our work is rooted in the legacy of the Southern Freedom Movement, and our mission of cultivating strong social movements in the South powerful enough to contend with some of the most pressing and complicated social, economic, and political problems we face today.