ATLANTA — Dawn Wooten described the conditions she witnessed as a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in South Georgia as "inhumane."
Now, Wooten is a whistleblower at the center of a complaint sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. The complaint outlines unsafe medical practices throughout the center which houses immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a 27-page complaint filed Monday, advocacy groups allege LaSalles, the private company that operates the center, is failing to contain COVID-19 while doctors at the facility perform questionable hysterectomies.
At a press conference Tuesday, Wooten recounted management refusing to test detainees with virus symptoms, denying medical care to many, housing large groups of immigrants together — often with detainees who were COVID-19 positive — and creating an environment where staff were working with little to no personal protective equipment.
"There needs to be attention brought to ICDC. The management needs to be changed," Wooten said. "... As a nurse, I took an oath that my life when I stepped in no longer was my life, it became the lives of others. And until you see through the eyes of others, and you experience through the eyes of others, there is no concern and there's no regard.”
The full complaint submitted by Project South and the Government Accountability Project — advocacy groups representing Wooten — raises alarms about mass hysterectomies performed on immigrant women in ICE custody without informed consent, the groups say.
Wooten is quoted in the complaint saying "detained women expressed to her that they didn’t fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy.”
"She said: 'I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going,’” the advocacy groups write.
The advocacy groups say Wooten described the the detention center systemically undercounting and underreporting COVID-19 cases. Wooten is quoted in the complaint saying nurses fabricated medical records and even shredded detainee medical requests.
The facility refused to use two rapid-testing COVID-19 machines — purchased for the facility by ICE for $14,000 each, she said. No staff was trained on the specialized equipment and Wooten only saw the machines used once.
"I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive," she said. "We have families, we have lives. They have families, they have lives.”
On Tuesday, Wooten said she has a preexisting condition that could lead to death if she contracted the virus. She said she had her hours reduced for raising questions about inadequate testing and was written up when she did not attend work at the advice of her doctor after displaying COVID-19 symptoms.
A single mother of five children, she said she was pinned between being sick and providing for her family.
“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,” the groups said in a press release.
Leeann Culbreath, a Tifton advocate, said her organization, the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, has been in contact with immigrants detained in the Irwin County Detention Center since 2017.
Culbreath told CNHI there have been allegations of mistreatment and unsafe medical practices on detainees for years, adding Wooten's decision to come forward has brought the issue to light.
"I can't describe how important it is, especially around women's health," she said. "These are things that we had seen and heard and we just knew weren't right. We didn't have a way to document that thoroughly but we knew something was going on."
At the press conference Tuesday, Culbreath shared stories of a crowded 52-person unit with unclean living quarters — mold growing on walls because of water leaking from ceilings and pipes.
She recounted a story of a woman who had undergone a questionable gynecological procedure — without her consent — that rendered her unable to become pregnant naturally.
LaSalle-run detention centers' handling of the pandemic has been flagged for federal review in the past.
In July, the Government Accountability Project sent a letter to Congress about a separate center operated by LaSalle in Louisiana saying anonymous staff raised concerns of "ongoing gross mismanagement, dangerous practices and compliance failures that has exacerbated, and continues to exacerbate, the spread of COVID-19.”
In a statement provided to CNHI by Lindsey Williams, an ICE spokeswoman, the agency said it does not comment on issues sent to the Office of the Inspector General.
"ICE takes all allegations seriously and defers to the OIG regarding any potential investigation and/or results," she said. "That said, in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
The agency said all ICE detention facilities are subject to regular inspections and the Irwin County Detention Center "has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s rigorous Performance Based National Detention Standards."
But medical experts have said the problem won't stay inside the walls of the detention center. On June 2, Dr. Scott Allen, an expert in detention health care, testified during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Hearing failure to control outbreaks within facilities will inevitably impact surrounding communities.
"If you are not careful,” he said, "detention and correctional facilities can be a hub of spread of the virus throughout the community."
Culbreath echoed the concern of the South Georgia community facing the fallout of an ill-contained coronavirus outbreak.
"Our communities are endangered by the reckless and inhumane practices at the Irwin County Detention Center, as employees at ICDC are exposed, perhaps get sick, transmit the virus to their families, friends, and then into our school systems, places of worship or restaurants," she said.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement calling for an immediate investigation into the complaint.
“If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint — including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women — are a staggering abuse of human rights," Pelosi said in a prepared statement.
South Georgia U.S. House Rep. Austin Scott also released a statement that his office has reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE.