ICE Detention Whistleblower Highlights the Critical Role of Whistleblowers in Virtual Oversight

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) has opened a probe into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in response to a letter signed by a group of 168 legislators. The letter urged the DHS OIG to investigate allegations of “jarring medical neglect” at Irwin County Detention Center, a detention center in Georgia operated by the private corporation LaSalle Corrections, following the filing of a highly publicized whistleblower complaint. The complaint underscores the value of whistleblowers as a mechanism of congressional oversight and suggests that whistleblowers will play a critical role in this period of virtual oversight.

Whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the detention center, accuses the center of denying its immigrant detainees COVID-19 treatment and failing to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health care guidelines. Ms. Wooten reports a refusal to test detainees, unsanitary conditions, lack of PPE, and failure to follow quarantine and social distancing rules. Additionally, Ms. Wooten alleges that a high rate of hysterectomies raised “red flags” for her and other nurses at the facility. Detainees’ testimony supplements many of the allegations made in Ms. Wooten’s complaint. These are not the first allegations LaSalle Corrections has faced regarding the mistreatment of its detainees during the pandemic.

Though Congress has employed oversight mechanisms to monitor detention facilities, effective oversight has been further frustrated by the COVID-19 crisis. Going virtual has created a new set of obstacles to effective oversight. This especially true with oversight of detention facilities where the risks associated with on-site inspections threaten the health and safety of detainees, staff, and inspectors. These restrictions limit the scope and efficacy of congressional oversight and raise concerns regarding the applicability of common oversight mechanisms in this unprecedented time.

This lack of thoroughness is exemplified in DHS OIG’s report on ICE detention facilities’ early experiences during the pandemic. Citing health and safety concerns and the need to “quickly gain real-time information about ICE detention facilities,” the investigation was conducted solely through surveys filled out by management and ICE officials. DHS OIG did not independently verify the accuracy of the survey responses which at times differed from the publicly available information on ICE’s website. Though the report reviewed ICE guidance on COVID-19, they did not assess the detention facilities’ compliance with the guidance. Moreover, the DHS OIG report did not include any recommendations. With its narrow scope and methodology, the report could not possibly provide Congress with a comprehensive picture of the state of detention facilities from which Congress could perform effective oversight. DHS OIG stated its intent to provide an in-depth report but has yet to do so.

Congress has similarly encountered roadblocks to oversight in its committee work. Although Congress has continued to conduct hearings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of access to detention centers hinders its ability to hold officials accountable for false statements made on the record. In July, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration held a hearing on oversight of ICE detention centers. The hearing focused specifically on oversight of privately-run detention centers and included among its witnesses the executive director of LaSalle Corrections Rodney Cooper. Mr. Cooper testified to the availability of cleaning equipment and that detainees are required to wear masks. He further assured the subcommittee that comprehensive protocols were in place for the protection of detainees and staff in compliance with CDC guidelines, including testing, enhanced cleaning practices, and social distancing strategies. Mr. Cooper’s testimony differs markedly from Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower complaint, challenging the capacity of this common oversight mechanism to meet the demands of the pandemic.

Though Congress extended whistleblower protections to DHS contractors’ employees in 2016, it must make continuous efforts to assure potential whistleblowers of their legal protections during this period of widespread financial insecurity. With the limitations placed on other oversight mechanisms, Congress will rely on whistleblowers like Ms. Wooten more than ever before to obtain the necessary information to fulfill its oversight obligations.