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2020 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate – Dawn Wooten

Posted  January 5, 2021

Privately run immigration detention facilities have been a stain on our nation’s reputation for years now.  The refugees and other immigrants who are detained within their walls suffer family separation, inadequate medical care, lack of basic necessities, inedible food, psychological torture, and even death from easily treatable diseases due to flimsy infection controls.  The current pandemic crisis only amplifies these gross failures.

One of the reasons these facilities have been allowed to continue in the condition they are in is how hard it is to get information about what the conditions are truly like inside.  Few independent observers are allowed inside, journalists have struggled to get accurate data, and it is rare that a detainee has the ability to come forward to disclose the truth about what they have endured.  These background realities make Dawn Wooten’s decision to expose the practices at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) all the more remarkable.

Ms. Wooten was a licensed practical nurse in ICDC, responsible for many aspects of immigrant’s basic health care needs.  As she reported to Congress, ICDC was failing to meet even the most basic needs of the people within its care, including failures to implement adequate COVID infection controls, properly staff the facility for everyone’s safety, or provide needed medical care.  Ms. Wooten’s most damning allegation was also the most sensational: ICDC was performing unwanted hysterectomies on immigrant women, removing their ability to bear children without their informed consent.  Dr. Mahendra Amin allegedly took this unnecessary, aggressive, and irreversible step to treat minor health concerns that could be addressed with far less invasive procedures.  Because many of the patients did not speak English, many had no idea what was happening or why.  Such unwanted hysterectomies performed on women of color inevitably drew comparisons to America’s ugly history of forced sterilization of women that was ultimately stopped by the Supreme Court in Skinner v. Oklahoma.

ICDC is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private prison company based in the south that manages jails and other detention facilities for local, state, and federal government agencies.  Like any other private prison company, LaSalle contracts with its government clients to provide a constitutional and legally regulated level of care for the people kept within its facilities.  Ms. Wooten’s allegations showed ICDC failed to meet these standards in a big way.  Unfortunately, a prisoner’s death in another LaSalle facility this year after receiving allegedly inadequate and inhumane care suggests that the problems in ICDC may be widespread.

In July 2020, like too many other whistleblowers, Ms. Wooten was demoted and retaliated against for speaking up about what she saw.  Despite the serious professional and personal risks in coming forward, Ms. Wooten knew it was the right thing to do and she was one of the few insiders with enough information to make this story public.

Ms. Wooten’s decision to come forward sparked national outrage, a class action complaint on behalf of ICDC detainees, and numerous congressional hearings.  She has also inspired others to come forward, including Alma Bowman, a U.S. citizen who was scheduled to be deported for speaking up about her treatment in ICDC—despite her citizenship.  Ms. Bowman was ordered to be deported soon after coming forward to report that she had received inadequate medical care for a hernia and was housed with four women with COVID without any protection.  A national outcry over the potential deportation of a U.S. citizen protected Ms. Bowman, for now.

For her courage in speaking out against these evil practices in the face of unspeakable pressure we nominate Dawn Wooten for the 2020 Whistleblower of the Year.

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Vote here for the 2020 Whistleblower of the Year

Tagged in: Importance of Whistleblowers, Improper Medical Facility, Whistleblower of the Year,


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