Dawn Wooten, a nurse who blew the whistle and alleged widespread medical neglect at an immigration detention center in 2020, filed a new complaint alleging that she was retaliated against for speaking to “the press, Congress, and nonprofit advocacy groups” about what she witnessed.
Wooten’s 2020 Allegations
On September 14, 2020, a group of organizations filed a complaint on behalf of Wooten that alleged there was widespread medical neglect taking place at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia. At the time of Wooten’s disclosure, ICDC housed detained immigrants and was managed by LaSalle Corrections, a private prison company.
Wooten alleged that COVID-19 was handled extremely poorly at the facility, which led to immigrant detainees fearing for their lives. She also alleged that ICDC allegedly retaliated “against employees who adhere to protocol and public health guidelines or speak out against violations.”
However, the most chilling allegation in Wooten’s complaint was that a high rate of hysterectomies were being performed on detained immigrants at ICDC. “The complaint reports that many detained immigrant women are sent to a particular gynecologist outside the facility,” prior WNN coverage reported. Wooten said that she and other nurses at the facility expressed concerns about the gynecologist:
“We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out…That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly…is he collecting these things or something…Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world.”
Impacts of Wooten’s Whistleblowing
The day after her whistleblower complaint was submitted, Wooten spoke to the press about what she witnessed at ICDC, WNN reported. She described how she became a whistleblower after observing how the facility handled the COVID-19 pandemic response. “I was called in one day and I was demoted, and I know I was demoted because I raised questions” about the detainees’ treatment during the pandemic, Wooten said. “I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive.”
The allegations made waves on Capitol Hill and included a Congressional investigation into the allegations regarding the high numbers of hysterectomies. “On September 23, 2020, Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, along with Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, sent a letter to then-DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf urging him to address the complaints, according to the press release. The press release named Dr. Mahendra Amin as the doctor who allegedly performed the hysterectomies,” WNN reported.
On October 2, 2020, the House of Representatives passed a resolution “condemning the unwanted, unnecessary medical procedures — including partial and full hysterectomies — performed on immigrant women without their full, informed consent” at ICDC, the press release states.
On April 29, 2021, Detention Watch Network published a press release announcing that “no immigrant women are currently detained” at ICDC, “as verified by groups on the ground,” WNN reported. On May 20, 2021, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas sent a memo to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) advising ICE to terminate contracts with two detention facilities, one being ICDC, according to previous WNN reporting.
A little under a month later, on May 20, 2021, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas sent a memo to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) advising ICE to terminate contracts with two detention facilities, one being ICDC, according to previous WNN reporting. In a statement, Mayorkas said, “We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system…DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards. Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action as we are doing today.”
Then in January 2022, the DHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report in which investigators conducted telephone interviews with “ICE personnel, ICDC officials, and detainees” and utilized medical professionals from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) Resources, Inc. 12 to conduct a virtual tour of the ICDC medical unit and medical records review.” According to WNN, “[t]he report confirms some concerns that the whistleblowers voiced in the original complaint, including the claims that the facility did not ‘adequately implement and enforce social distancing protocols’ for detainees.”
The OIG report confirmed “the contract with LaSalle Corrections went into effect on October 7, 2021, ‘and as of September 3, 2021, ICE no longer house[s] detainees at ICDC.’” The document also offered recommendations for ICDC: view more information on the report here.
In November 2022, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs had a hearing entitled “Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention.” According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), “Information shared in yesterday’s hearing validated the reports of Ms. Wooten from 2020, including that disturbingly, ICE contracted medical provider for ICDC, Dr. Mahendra Amin, was responsible for 90% of four types of invasive gynecological procedures performed on the detained ICE population nationwide though ICDC held only 4% of the entire female population in ICE custody.”
Wooten’s New Complaint
GAP states that Wooten’s new complaint “alleges that she was subjected to an unlawful reprimand and demotion to non-shift, part-time service in July 2020 for raising concerns about medical misconduct she discovered while working as a nurse at ICDC.” The press release provides information about Wooten’s whistleblower disclosures and outreach to the press in her attempts to spread the word about her allegations.
“LaSalle refused to return Ms. Wooten to active service despite advertising job openings for nursing positions for which she was uniquely qualified. After December 31, 2020 passed without having been assigned a single hour of work, Ms. Wooten concluded that she had likely been constructively discharged, despite still being listed as an employee in LaSalle’s official records,” GAP states. “The federal district court complaint alleges that LaSalle’s refusal to call Ms. Wooten for nursing shifts and its ultimate constructive termination was in retaliation for her media and legislative advocacy.”
In her complaint, Wooten asks “that the Court award her injunctive relief ordering a return to active employment at the same or similar position she held before the reprisal; declaratory relief in the form of a judgment that the Defendants must allow employees to communicate freely with the media and Congress about matters of public concern when doing so would not unduly interfere with business operations; and monetary damages as a result of LaSalle, acting under color of Federal authority, violating her First Amendment Rights.”
GAP states: “This is a precedent-setting case because Ms. Wooten is asking the Court to regard LaSalle as having the same duties and capacity to be sued as does the DHS and ICE itself.”
Read Wooten’s 2022 complaint here.