Immigration attorneys, advocates and asylum-seekers are speaking out about conditions at Louisiana detention centers run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, complaining about overcrowded dorms, isolation, undrinkable water and a lack of medical care.

When Daniel G., a 34-year-old asylum-seeker from Nicaragua, picked up the phone recently at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, he could barely be heard over shouting in the background. 

“It is always a mess like this,” he said. “Everybody makes noise.”

He spoke quickly in Spanish; when he explained why he left his country of origin, he lowered his voice so he could not be overheard.

“I have often been insulted in this detention center," he said. "They treat us badly. I am a witness of episodes of violence every single day.”

Daniel, whose real name has been changed to protect his identity, has been living in the private-run detention center for immigrants in Louisiana for nearly six months. He crossed the border last spring, walking through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. He paid nearly $3,000 to a coyote, a person who smuggles immigrants across U.S.-Mexico border.

Once he encountered a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol unit, Daniel requested asylum. His country, Nicaragua, is wracked by violence and corruption, and he needed to flee to save himself, he explained.

“Now I am still here detained. I don’t know for how long it is going to be like that,” he said. “But I am not a criminal.” 

Daniel is one of dozens of immigrants detained at Winn Correctional Center that The Advocate has spoken to over the past few weeks. Their stories are eerily similar: The water is yellow, the food is always cold, the facilities are filthy and overcrowded, and complaints about health issues often are ignored.

“The hygienic conditions are terrible here,” Daniel said. “We only have two bathrooms in our dorms. Almost nobody came here to clean.” Each dorm holds 44 detainees.

As of Friday afternoon, LaSalle Corrections, which operates the detention center, had not responded to questions for this story. But an ICE spokesperson told The Advocate on Friday that, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is firmly committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

The agency, the spokesperson added, “also uses a multi-layered inspections program to ensure its facilities meet a certain threshold of care as outlined in our contracts with facilities, as well as the National Detention Standards and the Performance Based National Detention Standards.”

In the statement, ICE also said “the standards reflect ICE’s ongoing effort to tailor the conditions of immigration detention to its unique purpose while maintaining a safe and secure detention environment for staff and detainees.”

Isolation

Kokou Lare, an asylum-seeker from Togo who spent several months at Winn Correctional Center, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas seven months ago. His real name is not being used as he fears repercussions over his asylum case. 

When Lare left Togo and flew to South America, his destination was Acuña, a border town in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. He fled his home country after he and his partner, a man from Togo, were assaulted with machetes by a homophobic mob.

“Being a gay person in my home country is a crime,” he said in French. “I had to leave to not be persecuted.”

Once he was detained in Winn Correctional Center, Lare tried to pass the time quietly.

“If you don’t comply to whatever they say that you have to do, if you make any mistake, if you don’t follow every order, they throw you in solitary,” he said. “There is a room for this purpose called the Cyper Room.”

Responding to questions, an ICE spokesperson said Friday that “Winn Correctional Center does not have a room called the Cyper Room.” The agency added that “allegations of lengthy forced isolation for special categories of detainees without communication access are unfounded and do not accurately reflect ICE detention operations.”

But in October 2019, an Associated Press story reported that Winn Correctional Center used a solitary confinement cell to hold detainees accused of violating rules that migrants referred to as a “pozo,” meaning a hole.

The name may be different depending on the detainee you ask, immigration advocates and activists with knowledge of the asylum-seekers’ condition in Winn said, but detainees' stories about an isolation room are consistent. 

Those who ended up in the isolation room can’t speak with their lawyer or anybody else for days or weeks, claimed Mich Gonzalez, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who is representing Lare on his asylum claim. “Nobody inside the Winn detention center explained to the immigrants which the rules are to comply with in order not to be in the Cyper Room,” he said.

“One of the detainees has been forced to stay in isolation for two nights, they took his clothes off, gave him a simple blanket to cover himself and left him there for hours,” an activist recalled. “The reason for the punishment was that the guards thought he said he wanted to kill himself.”

Lare said he witnessed some detainees kept in isolation for weeks.

“When they bring someone into isolation, the ICE officers often wait for the middle of the night," he said. "They wake them up. And then they transport them handcuffed.”

On Friday, a spokesperson said, “ICE’s policy governing the use of special management units protects detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm by segregating certain detainees from the general population for both administrative and disciplinary reasons when necessary.”

The spokesperson added, “the use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is exceedingly rare, but at times necessary, to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility.”

“ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” the spokesperson said.

LaSalle Corrections did not respond to questions about the isolation cell.

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The 'amarilla' water

When Daniel heard the word "amarilla," the Spanish word for yellow, during a phone interview, he said, “Yes, the drinking water is of that color in Winn. The water is yellow. It’s bad to drink it.”

Two other immigrants told The Advocate they would boil cups of water in a microwave, then take them out and cool them off before they felt the water was safe enough to drink.

“That water is not drinkable at all,” Lare said. “The food was also so bad that I had to pay for some decent food at the commissary. I think they offered us terrible meals so that we have to pay for more food, using the money our sponsors send into the commissary.”

LaSalle Corrections did not respond when asked about the condition of water and food, but an ICE spokesperson said, “The Winn Correctional Center kitchen runs on a five-week menu cycle approved by a certified dietitian. Residents are provided with three meals per day with milk, juice, tea, coffee, and water available at all meals.”

ICE also said the center is “on the same water system as the city of Winnfield, Louisiana, which is managed and inspected by the city.”

Although there is no public list of the items — or prices — offered at the Winn Detention Center’s commissary, Daniel said detainees can spend up to $50 a week for extra food, sodas, water, and other basic items such as toothpaste.

“My average expense is between $25 and $30 every week,” he said. “Toothpaste and a few slices of bread can cost up to $5 each."

The issue is not new. It attracted a national spotlight in 2018 when Reuters reported the story of Duglas Cruz, a detainee at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California,  who told of having to pay $3.25 for a can of tuna and $4.35 for a small stick of deodorant. The company commented that external contractors run its commissary, offering prices "in line with comparable local markets."

“It is either that they are trying to cut the costs of offering cheap meals or that they are doing it on purpose to force the asylum-seekers to buy products at the commissary,” said Sofia Casini, of Freedom For Immigrants. “Either way, we consider that as a violation of the immigrants’ rights.”

Medical care 

Juan Ramon Nunez, an immigrant from Cuba who lives in Ohio, was worried about his wife's cousin, Luis, when he heard that his medical issues were not addressed at Winn Correctional Center. “We don’t know how to help him from here,” he said.

Luis fled from Nicaragua a little more than six months ago after being part of the 2018 Nicaraguan protests. “He had to leave. He had no choice,” Nunez said.

Once he got to the United States and applied for asylum, he began having health issues.

“Luis is suffering from heavy intestinal issues," Nunez said. "He told me that his legs are swollen, and he has blood in his stool. They never gave him the results of a blood test, and he is still waiting for seeing a medical doctor.”

The most recent internal inspection report for Winn Correctional Center by the Office of Detention Oversight found 20 deficiencies; six were related to medical care. Because of COVID-19 protocols, the agency based its inspection on 12 detainee interviews that were conducted via video teleconference.

In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center called on the Biden administration to cancel its government contract at Winn Correctional Center, citing abuse, medical neglect, and another mistreatment at the facility. 

In the complaint, lawyer Lara Nochomovitz said that “the medical care is abhorrent at Winn.” Nochomovitz shared an example of one of her clients “who has circulatory disorder and had visible blood pooling in his leg, and no one did anything to help him while he was detained at Winn.”

In December, a report by Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of organizations that aims to abolish immigration detention in the United States, showed that ICE’s mismanagement of COVID-19 contributed to the spread of coronavirus across the country. According to the August 2020 report, Hotbeds of Infection, almost 5.5% of all U.S. cases were attributable to spread from ICE detention centers.

One person has died from complications of COVID-19 at Winn Correctional Center, according to the ICE database and the Freedom For Immigrants database. His name was Jally Romien, a 56-year-old Marshallese man who entered the U.S. lawfully on Oct. 24, 2003, in Hawaii, and was taken into ICE custody on May 1, 2020, following his conviction of second-degree sexual assault.

However, activists and nonprofit organizations say the COVID-19 data is likely inaccurate because immigrants are tested when they are transferred from one facility to another, and not when they report symptoms. More than a year later, the agency is still under fire from immigration lawyers and advocates for its handling of the pandemic.

“We don’t know the truth about the real numbers of COVID cases inside,” said Casini. “This is a huge issue.”

An ICE spokesperson told The Advocate, “during the intake process, ICE screens and tests all new individuals who arrive at ICE facilities to detect COVID-19,” adding that “ICE houses all new arrivals separately (cohorted) from the general population for 14 days after their arrival and monitors them for COVID-19 symptoms.”

The spokesperson also said that the agency “has taken proactive measures to tailor conditions across its detention network to maintain safe and secure environments for detainees and staff,” including personal protective equipment to all staff and detainees and “social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times.”

According to the Freedom For Immigrants Map, which tracks ICE detention centers across the country, Winn Correctional Center has an average daily population of 586.

As of Nov. 9, there were 10 positive cases in the center, according to the data provided by ICE. Along with Richmond Correctional Center, another ICE facility run by LaSalle Corrections, Winn accounts for most of the positive cases reported in Louisiana since the pandemic began. The ICE data showed a cumulative total of 495 positive cases in Winn Correctional Center and 575 at Richwood Correctional Center.

Lare said ICE officers inside Winn do not use masks or practice social distancing.

“They don’t follow any strict rules at all," he said. "When they spoke to us, they did not care to stay six feet apart. The dorms are packed.”

Detainees also lack access to hand soap, hand sanitizers, masks, vaccines and tests, said Casini. “I think that the public is unaware of this. The people in detention are fighting for getting tested, and they can’t quarantine.”

LaSalle Corrections did not answer questions related to the facility's medical conditions for this story.


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