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Asylum-seekers, attorneys decry 'horrendous' Louisiana ICE detention center

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana has written two letters to the Department of Homeland Security over reports of “abuses and inhumane" conditions.
Winn Correctional Center
Detainees walk with their hands clasped behind their backs along a line painted on a walkway inside the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., on Sept. 26, 2019. Detainees are required to walk from site to site with their hands clasped behind their backs.Gerald Herbert / AP file

During his 46 days at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, an asylum-seeker who was detained there said he witnessed “horrible conditions” that were “not suitable for humans.”

The recently paroled detainee, who did not want to use his name pending his asylum case, spoke on the phone with NBC News and recounted there was little food, a lack of toilets, no hot water and extremely cold temperatures inside the facility.

Immigration attorneys and advocates are sounding the alarm over conditions at the detention center run by the New Orleans field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying it's deteriorated over the past few months.

The former detainee said that at one point, a protest broke out over conditions in his unit and the men were pepper-sprayed. “I begged them to take me out of the room because I couldn’t breathe with my asthma. One man fainted in front of me. But they left me there," said the detainee, who is originally from Cuba and made his way to the U.S.-Mexico border from Guyana.

Detainees wait for medical clinic access
Detainees sit and wait for their turn at the medical clinic at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., on Sept. 26, 2019.Gerald Herbert / AP file

He said it was tough to access medical care; whenever he would request a medical appointment for his asthma, he would have to wait five days to see a doctor.

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has written two letters to the Department of Homeland Security over reports of “abuses and inhumane conditions at Winn.”

At least one detainee was hospitalized after attempting suicide and there are reports of others contemplating taking their life as well, according to the letters sent to Homeland Security, as well as accounts of former detainees and attorneys.

The attorneys included a long list of grievances, including units for 44 people having only one urinal, two toilets and two showers. In one instance, a detainee allegedly found a live cockroach in his food. Another detainee removed a cyst from his stomach due to lack of medical attention. Hunger strikes have broken out over the conditions at the facility and have resulted in the use of pepper spray. The letters also cite what advocates and detainees describe as racist language by guards in the facilities.

“This is why we are calling on Mayorkas to immediately end all contracts with Winn and open an investigation into NOLA ICE,” Mich Gonzalez, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, referring to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

In one instance, described in the June 10 letter to Homeland Security, a detainee reported to Gonzalez he was handcuffed and forced to the ground with his face pushed against the floor. The client repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and believes the officer’s knee was on his neck. He was placed in isolation where he attempted suicide and was later deported.  The detainee, who spoke English, overheard guards at Winn refer to other detainees as "illegal dogs" and "dumb a----. One officer told him "I'm white, I don't know Spanish."

In response to an NBC News inquiry about the specific allegations from the former detainees and attorneys, an ICE spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” 

NBC News contacted Winn Correctional Center over the allegations, but the facility referred questions to ICE.

According to Gonzalez, the population size in the detention centers overseen by the New Orleans ICE field office has swelled to about 6,000 from about 1,000 several months ago.

The uptick is due to a number of reasons, including increased migration patterns, as well as an uptick in unauthorized border crossings, many from asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico after having been turned away at the border due to Title 42, the public health order enacted during the coronavirus pandemic by the Trump administration that is still in effect.

Those who are detained and are seeking asylum are supposed to be given a credible fear interview within the first 14 days of being in ICE custody, Gonzalez said, but it’s taking weeks or months.

“In Louisiana and Mississippi ICE facilities, there are hundreds of people waiting for a credible fear interview (CFI), but the Asylum Offices only have access to one or two phone lines to conduct the interviews,” Gonzalez said. “Moreover, they’re not providing appropriate language access and are denying swaths of CFIs even though the threshold for establishing credible fear should be low. It’s not supposed to be a full asylum hearing.”

The number of detained asylum-seekers in Louisiana grew after the state cut the number of state inmates in its prisons by enacting sweeping criminal justice overhaul measures in recent years. In its place, more local for-profit prisons set up contracts with ICE to house migrant detainees.

Lara Nochomovitz, a private lawyer with a large client base in Louisiana who helps coordinate post-release services, said her clients are constantly complaining of racism from the guards, which is detailed in the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative letter to Homeland Security. In addition, many of those being released have to post high bonds, attorneys say, contributing to more mental health crises among detainees.

“There have been more men crying when I meet with them than ever before,” she said.

Attorneys say more detainees are being put in solitary confinement. Homero López, executive director of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy in New Orleans, said “there are some very egregious cases.” López said he has seen cases where gay men are placed in solitary confinement ‘for their protection’ because they were assaulted or harassed by other detainees. He said one of the issues with isolation is there is no process in place to fight solitary confinement or to get time reduced.

In an April letter to Mayorkas, the American Civil Liberties Union asked that 39 ICE facilities be closed — 11 are in Louisiana and include Winn.

It’s not the first time Louisiana detention centers have come under fire in recent years for reasons including their excessively low rates of parole and paroling asylum-seekers with unusually high bonds.

Another detainee whose name is also being withheld told NBC News that he spent 46 days at Winn and said conditions were “horrendous.”

Originally from Cuba, the detainee made his way to the border from Uruguay.

He said there was flooding recently at the facility and everyone’s belongings got wet.

“We are constantly being threatened with deportation. No one ever tells us there is a possibility we can stay in the country,” he said after being released on parole from Winn last week.

“They make us feel bad. I thought when I got here, the attention would have been different," the man said. "They treated me like a dog. I felt disillusioned."

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