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Detainees and advocates decry 'horrific' conditions at Louisiana ICE detention center

People held at the Winn Correctional Center are subjected to undrinkable water, the constant threat of solitary confinement and limited access to doctors, they say.
Collage of the state of Louisiana with a pin locating the "Winn Correctional Center" and the silhouette of a man against barbed wire
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

An ICE detention center for migrants in Louisiana that has been the subject of years of complaints about inadequate medical care, filthy accommodations and mistreatment of detainees has failed to remedy the issues in the year since immigration officials said the facility would improve living conditions and scale back the number of people who can be housed there, advocates and asylum-seekers said.

Three people who are or were recently detained at the Winn Correctional Center in rural Winn Parish, as well as advocates and lawyers who have been to the site and have clients there, said by phone that those detained there are subjected to undrinkable water, the constant threat of solitary confinement and limited access to doctors, even in critical situations. 

“This is an extremely problematic facility,” said Sofia Casini, the director of monitoring and community advocacy at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It has been for a very long time, and we have not seen improvements.”

As of the week of June 12, more than 1,110 people were detained at Winn, a major detention center operated by a private company for male immigrants who entered the U.S. at its southern border. The figure is up 53% from September, according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The population has climbed and the poor conditions have persisted despite ICE’s assurances last year that it would reduce the facility’s “guaranteed minimum” number of beds and renovate it to address housing concerns, advocates said.

“There’s a lot of horrific things that have gone down and that continue to go down at that facility but also just that are endemic to the entire New Orleans ICE field office,” said Mich González, the associate director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has represented dozens of people detained at the facility, which has been housing migrants since 2019, González said.

“Nothing has changed about the conditions of this facility,” said González, adding that “horrific things” were happening on his last visit in April. “People with open wounds not getting the treatment that they need. People on crutches being told that they don’t have a humanitarian interest in being released even though they’re not a danger to anyone and they have people waiting for them at home. People detained for upwards of a year unnecessarily.”

A spokesperson said in a statement that ICE “takes its commitment to promoting safe, secure, humane environments for those in its custody very seriously — the agency provides comprehensive policy and strict oversight for the administrative custody of one of the most transient, diverse populations of any correctional or detention system in the world and holds firm to continuous review of the many factors relevant to the continued operation of each of its facilities.”

Complaints about quality of water and food are common

A 37-year-old Colombian asylum-seeker who was detained at Winn for about six months before he was released in April said he experienced ongoing heavy stomach pains, diarrhea and blood in his stool, symptoms he said were common among detainees who had been at the center for some time.

“People stay sick, and they don’t care,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution in his immigration case. 

The asylum-seeker said migrants have to line up at 6 a.m. to make medical appointments, during which nurses determine whether they get to see doctors. He said he visited the nurse five times before he got an appointment to see a doctor but was released from the facility before the visit could take place.

He said that days after he was released, his symptoms began to subside.

“I was very sick from my stomach. I had a lot of stomach pains. I think if I hadn’t gotten out, it would have been terrible,” he said. 

Another common complaint is the quality of water and food. The Colombian asylum-seeker and another migrant said that water at the facility is “yellow” and that detainees question whether it is safe to drink.

“The facility is not clean,” said Dwayne Smith, a Jamaican migrant who was detained at Winn for about two months this year.

The Colombian asylum-seeker said detainees whose families can send them money may have the option to buy water from the commissary.

Winn is on the same water system as the city of Winnfield, which is managed and inspected by the city, ICE said. A water quality report for the year 2022 said the Louisiana Health Department scored the West Winn Water System a “D” on its “A” to “F” ranking system of its public water systems.

“We are working diligently to bring West Winn Water System to a higher degree of value,” the water system said in its report.

John Star, a Nigerian man who said that he has been detained at Winn since November and that he heats the water before he drinks it, said the facility also appears to serve food that has expired.

“You open it and the smell alone will make you choke,” Star said.

ICE said that the kitchen at Winn runs on a five-week menu cycle that is approved by a certified dietitian and that residents are provided three meals a day, as well as the chance to buy additional food and beverages at their own cost through a commissary run by LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, Louisiana, which operates detention and corrections centers in several Southern states.

Advocacy groups have called for facility’s closure 

Winn Correctional Center and seven other Louisiana jails began holding thousands of immigrant detainees in ICE custody in May 2019 as President Donald Trump expanded detention of migrants and asylum-seekers. 

The facility quickly drew criticism from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups, which have filed complaints about conditions and treatment of detainees and called for it to be closed. LaSalle Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

In February 2021 a group of immigrant advocacy organizations wrote to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the DHS inspector general submitting testimony about what they described as “torture” and other abuses at the facility.

Included in the complaint was testimony from a Cameroonian migrant who alleged that in January 2021 ICE officials tried to force him to provide a fingerprint for documents related to his deportation. The man said that when he declined, the officers pressed him on the floor, with one “pressing on my neck with their hands, the other came in front of me, pulling my head from above, straightening my neck so they could easily suppress me.”

The alleged assault went on for “more than two minutes,” the man said, according to the testimony. He was sent to a nurse after he was forced to provide his fingerprint, according to his testimony.

“Every part of my body was in pain; I had swollen hands, my wrists, and forehead. My neck had finger marks where I had been pressed down,” the man said, according to the written testimony.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment about the complaint or the testimony of the migrants.

In May 2021, three months after advocacy organizations wrote to DHS, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties notified ICE that it would investigate several complaints against the Winn facility to determine whether the allegations were “indicative of systemic civil rights and civil liberties issues.” Among the matters it said it would investigate was the September 2020 death of a 56-year-old citizen of the Marshall Islands. 

The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said Thursday that its investigation continues.

In December 2021, the office wrote in a memorandum to the acting director of ICE at the time that after an investigation in August 2021, it had “serious concerns for the health and safety of the detainees” and recommended the “facility be closed or drawn down until several critical health and safety concerns could be addressed.”

Winn was one of four Louisiana facilities that “have had significant current and past allegations related to conditions of detention and medical and mental health care,” the memo said.

The office said it issued 88 recommendations to ICE about Winn. 

ICE did not respond to a request for comment about the investigation.

Following the reports of abuse, ICE announced in March 2022 that it was limiting use of three facilities, including Winn. 

The agency said it would reduce the guaranteed minimum number of beds contracted at Winn “in order to better match the appropriate use of the facility, more closely aligning the guaranteed minimum to Winn’s historical and recent staffing constraints.” The federal government often guarantees private firms that it will pay for a minimum number of beds at facilities housing migrants.

The agency said that it would also assign a custody resource coordinator to work with its population and that ICE would provide DHS with an assessment of key findings. 

“Finally, ICE will continue to closely monitor conditions, including ongoing construction and remediation work at the facility, and take additional action as necessary,” the agency said at the time.

ICE has also said that last fall it finished a phased renovation project at Winn that added new dormitory roofs, as well as additional restroom and shower facilities to every dormitory. The agency said each tier has four showers, sinks and toilets with a maximum of 48 residents in each tier.

But people recently housed in the facility and their advocates say conditions have not improved since the complaints were filed, with many complaining of dirty accommodations and a lack of adequate medical care.

Medical care ‘very lacking,’ advocates say

González of the Southern Poverty Law Center said advocates are concerned about alleged “medical neglect” at the facility.

The organization, which has been providing services to migrants at Winn, shared with NBC News an email exchange with ICE from late April in which it detailed medical needs of people detained at Winn and another area detention center.

“We are flagging all of these individuals because we believe ICE should know the circumstances and prioritize review of their custody for potential release,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in its email.

It described one person who was alleged to have become infected with H. pylori, a bacterium that infects the stomach. 

“He’s been vomiting and defecating blood, with little medical attention from the facility. Other symptoms are stomach inflammation, abdominal pain, vomiting blood, urinating blood, gas, headache,” the group wrote in an email.

Another man, the email alleged, was missing the “bottom half of his right leg and needs continued physical therapy, which is being denied at the facility. He’s not getting the care he needs and needs to be prioritized for release.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that another detainee had “serious diabetes” and was hospitalized in December and “needs full and consistent blood sugar testing for diabetes and medical intervention if needed.”

It wrote in the email exchange on April 20 that another detainee who arrived at Winn with one crutch that he was given before he arrived has “screws in his tibia and is in a lot of pain.”

It alleged that the man had “not received appropriate medical attention other than just being prescribed ibuprofen by the facility for pain” and that “he needs physical therapy and a referral for a specialist, which the facility has not done anything about.”

In the email exchange provided to NBC News, an ICE deputy field office director responded the same day and said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s message had been received and sent to officials for review.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the review.

According to the agency, the Winn facility received a superior rating from the ICE Office of Detention Oversight in an inspection in March 2022, the highest rating on the inspection scale. It did not provide more recent information.

Sarah Gillman, an attorney who is the director of strategic U.S. litigation for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a human rights advocacy group, said that when she was at Winn last fall, her teams met with about 40 people “who had medical issues that they had tried to seek help for and had not received.”

“The medical care across the board is sadly very lacking,” she said.

Gillman said that during two trips to Winn last year, “there were a myriad of problems, from lack of adequate necessary medical care to language access to lack of access to counsel to conditions that are completely unethical to punitive conditions of confinement.”

One of those problems, advocates and former detainees said, is the continued threat and use of forced isolation.

“It’s the most famous threat there,” the Colombian asylum-seeker said. “They threaten you every day, frequently.”

He described solitary confinement, in a part of the center known as Cypress, as a small, personal cell with no access to sunlight where detainees accused of causing trouble are taken. Those held in solitary are handcuffed and shackled anywhere they go. 

“No one wants to go to Cypress, so no one can express themselves,” he said. “The system makes you think you’ve committed this horrible crime because of the treatment they’re giving you.” 

Smith, the Jamaican migrant, said he was held in solitary confinement for several days for causing a disturbance, even though, he said, he was not the detainee who started the incident. Smith alleged that ICE chose to punish him with a solitary cell instead of the man who had caused the incident.

“I was treated like a criminal fugitive,” said Smith, who was deported in April. “I’ve lived 35 years of my life and never been treated like that before.”  

ICE did not respond to a request for comment about Smith’s allegations.

Advocates say the continued reports of abuse are a growing concern as the total number of people in ICE custody has increased by 39% since early May, following the end of the pandemic-era asylum restriction known as Title 42, according to ICE data and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, based at Syracuse University. As of June 18, 29,613 people were in ICE custody, according to agency data.

“There’s been a lot of reports on Winn, and there’s been a lot of documentation, and even with all that it continues to exist,” Gillman said. “The only solution in my opinion is to shut it down.”

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and it’s very heartbreaking to see human beings in that facility,” she said.