Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility run by the private corporation LaSalle Corrections, which manages 18 detention centers throughout the southern United States. According to an employee there, nurse Dawn Wooten, the center is maltreating both detainees and staff.
Wooten says that the center has underreported cases of Covid-19, knowingly placed detainees and staff—including her—at risk of contracting the virus. (31 detainees and well over a dozen employees at Irwin have tested positive). The center has ignored medical complaints from detainees and staff, and refused to test symptomatic detainees.
After protesting for months, in September 2020, with assistance from the Government Accountability Project, she finally detailed her complaints to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
Wooten has over a decade of experience working as a nurse in prisons and understands the gravity of her job: “You’re responsible for the lives of others.”
There’s serious personal danger for Wooten; she has sickle cell anemia, which makes exposure to Covid-19 potentially deadly for her. In addition, one of her children has asthma, which means that contracting the virus would seriously endanger her child as well. But she wasn't told that some of the detainees she was working with had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Wooten claims that the director of nurses “routinely rejected” detainees’ requests to be tested. She even witnessed nurses shred “sick call” sheets, which detainees use to ask for help. And when she asked for a replacement mask when the strap on her original mask broke, she was denied.
Wooten has paid for her complaints. “When I started talking about the unfairness and injustice,” she says, “I was written up.” She was tested twice for the coronavirus and told they shifted her from full-time to on-call work—only a few hours a month. That was devastating to Wooten, who had medical bills, sick family members, children to feed, rent to pay, and car payments to make. She knew that white staff members who had been sent home were given “Covid pay” and not required to call in.
Complaints filed by advocacy groups also accuse the Irwin center of performing unnecessary hysterectomies on immigrants. Wooten claims that just about every woman the detention center’s doctor sees ends up with a hysterectomy, and that several of the detainees told her that they don’t know why they had to have those operations.
Wooten is, of course, furious, but understands the dynamics. “I became a whistleblower; now I’m a target,” she said at a press conference. But she asserts that “I’ll be a target anytime” rather than accepting an inhumane system like the one at Irwin.