Georgia ICE whistleblower files suit against private prison company

Dawn Wooten says she was retaliated against after helping shine a light on unethical gynecological procedures performed on detained immigrant women.

A whistleblower who came forward with explosive allegations of medical abuse at a since shuttered immigrant jail in Ocilla is suing the private prison company that ran the detention center.

Dawn Wooten is a Tifton resident and a nurse by training. In late December, she filed a lawsuit against LaSalle Corrections, her former employer, claiming she was let go and retaliated against after her whistleblower report placed a bright, national spotlight on LaSalle’s track record in Georgia.

“I didn’t know what a whistleblower was. I did not know I was blowing a whistle … It was kind of like driving at night without night vision goggles,” Wooten told the AJC in December. “I did not know what the repercussions were going to be.”

As outlined in the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, the repercussions of coming forward were swiftly felt.

In the summer of 2020, Wooten raised concerns internally around the immigration jail’s COVID-19 protocols – and around the high rates of gynecological procedures performed on immigrant women detainees, which Wooten believed were taking place without detainees’ understanding or consent. Shortly afterwards, the nurse says she was reprimanded and demoted to a part-time, on-call position.

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She says a colleague advised her “not to touch” the issue of gynecological care. The lawsuit alleges that the detention center’s warden, David Paulk, used racially offensive language towards Wooten.

Paulk is also identified as a defendant in Wooten’s employment violation suit. He did not return the AJC’s request for comment. A LaSalle executive said the company strongly refutes the lawsuit’s claims, dismissing the allegations as malicious.

According to the complaint, Wooten claims she was effectively terminated after she formally filed her whistleblower report in September 2020, which sparked a media frenzy and calls for investigations from Georgia and federal officials. In the aftermath of the report’s publication, Wooten says LaSalle continued to post openings for nursing positions, but never assigned her any hours or returned her to active service.

Wooten’s lawsuit follows earlier attempts to seek redress for what she views as unlawful retaliation. In 2020, she filed a retaliation complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, but DHS has yet to issue a decision or order in response to the complaint.

Wooten’s goal is for the court to order LaSalle to return her to its employ and to allow her, once back on staff, to “communicate freely with the media and Congress about matters of public concerns.”

Were that not possible, the lawsuit seeks front pay for a period of at least five years, back pay for all lost wages and benefits, and an unspecified amount of economic damages for “injury to Plaintiff’s career, professional reputation, and earning capacity.”

Dana Gold is an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, which is helping represent Wooten. She describes her client’s lawsuit as being “on the forefront” of whistleblower litigation.

“Ms. Wooten’s litigation, if successful, will validate to workers in more than 200 ICE detention centers that their rights will be vindicated if they speak up about wrongdoing and abuses perpetrated by federal contractors,” she said in a statement.

Just days after she came forward, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said a gynecologist at the center of Wooten’s complaint would no longer see patients from the privately-run Ocilla immigrant detention center. And after the Biden administration severed ties with the 1,296-bed jail, all ICE detainees were moved out by early September 2021.

Following an 18-month bipartisan probe, a report published last November confirmed much of what Wooten had said, finding a pattern of “excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary” gynecological procedures inside the detention center.

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