Dawn Wooten, LPN
Whistleblower, Advocate, Motivational Speaker, Medical Professional
Giving a voice to the voiceless: One voice at a time.
Ms. Dawn Wooten, LPN, worked as a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention center in Ocilla, Georgia. As COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire in early 2020, particularly in congregate settings like immigration detention facilities, Ms. Wooten became gravely concerned about failures at ICDC to comply with CDC guidelines and protect immigrants and workers alike from the coronavirus and other misconduct, including shredding detainees’ requests for medical care. In addition, numerous immigrant women detainees began to ask her about gynecological procedures they underwent that made them sterile without understanding why or what they experienced. Ms. Wooten began raising concerns internally to her supervisors about the harmful conditions and medical mistreatment at ICDC, only to find herself demoted to an on-call position with no subsequent calls for work. Unable to stay silent knowing about the risk of ongoing harm to the immigrants detained at ICDC, she secured pro-bono legal counsel to assist her in filing whistleblower complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) on September 14, 2020, and with Congress on September 17, 2020.
The Intercept ran an exclusive piece on September 14th, primarily focusing on Ms. Wooten’s allegations revealing general medical failures and failures specific to protecting against the spread of COVID-19. Later that day, Ms. Wooten made her first press appearance in Atlanta. Although the majority of Dawn’s OIG disclosures focused on the endangerment of immigrants and workers from the spread of COVID-19, the press rightly zeroed in on the explosive nature of her disclosures that women were undergoing hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without informed consent, covered in a subsequent article by The Intercept the day after the press conference.
Ms. Wooten and her explosive disclosures went viral, inciting passionate calls for reform from immigration justice organizations, medical professionals, and members of Congress. More than 170 members of Congress called for investigations into conditions at ICDC; a Congressional delegation visited ICDC to speak with Ms. Wooten as well as women survivors of medical mistreatment; and the House of Representatives passed a resolution formally condemning the forced medical procedures, citing Ms. Wooten’s complaint. Congress and the Office of Inspector General initiated investigations into the disclosures, as well as into the unlawful retaliation against Ms. Wooten for her whistleblowing.
There have been more than 200 press stories about Ms. Wooten’s disclosures, and her decision to speak up publicly opened the door for women survivors to come forward with their stories. Fifty-seven women who were victims of unwanted medical procedures have come forward, driving calls to shut down ICDC. The women survivors filed a class action lawsuit seeking justice for the medical mistreatment they endured at ICDC.
The doctor responsible for the mistreatment was quickly stopped from seeing patients at ICDC, and by early May 2021, all women were transferred out of ICDC.
Finally, on May 20, 2021, DHS Secretary Mayorkas ordered that ICDC be shut down entirely as a facility for immigration detention based on the findings of ongoing investigations spurred by Ms. Wooten and the women survivors who came forward, stating: “We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” On September 4, 2021, it was reported that all immigrants have been removed from ICDC and transferred to other ICE detention facilities.
Rarely has a whistleblower’s disclosure catalyzed this degree of accountability – and prevention of future harm to others – so swiftly. Ms. Wooten, however, continues to suffer the cost of speaking up, with employers unwilling to hire the widely recognized “whistleblower” despite a tremendous need for nurses. With the help of her pro bono attorneys at Government Accountability Project, she continues to pursue justice for suffering unlawful retaliation for her whistleblowing.
Still, Ms. Wooten remains clear in her conviction that she did the right thing by speaking up for the voiceless and vulnerable in the face of inhumane treatment, receiving both vindication for her whistleblowing as well as gratitude and recognition for her truth-telling. Recognized by the Giraffe Heroes Project (#StickYourNeckOut) and the American Public Health Association for her courage and ethical action in reporting the abhorrent practices at ICDC, she is committed to educating and inspiring others through sharing her story about how one person willing to raise their voice can change the world.