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ICE is sending more people to a troubled Louisiana detention center, advocates say

Around 100 detainees were transferred this month to the Winn Correctional Center, which has been the subject of years of complaints, advocates for asylum-seekers said.
migrants detention ice
Detainees at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., in 2019. Nearly 1,500 migrants were detained at Winn last month.Gerald Herbert / AP file

Dozens of migrants have recently been transferred to a federal detention center in Louisiana that has been the subject of years of complaints about filthy conditions and inadequate medical care, advocates for immigrants and asylum-seekers said.

Authorities with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred around 100 detainees this month from the Pine Prairie processing center in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, to the Winn Correctional Center, about 100 miles north in rural Winn Parish, the Southeast Dignity Not Detention Coalition, an immigrant rights advocacy group, said Wednesday.

The transfers, the group said, raise concerns about the treatment of the migrants in an already overcrowded and understaffed facility.

NBC News reported in July — citing three people who were currently or recently detained at Winn, as well as advocates and lawyers who have been to the site and had clients there — that men being held there were subjected to undrinkable water, the constant threat of solitary confinement and limited access to doctors, even in critical situations.

“These problems are only going to worsen with the higher population," Tania Wolf, an organizing committee member of the coalition, said.

Wolf said that during a visit to Winn this week, the facility appeared overcrowded with detainees and “very understaffed.”

“It was chaotic! They do not have the staff necessary to meet the needs of so many people,” Homero López, legal director at the nonprofit Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy, said in a statement.

The transfers come as ICE is winding down its use of Pine Prairie, which is run by the private company GEO Secure Services, for immigrant detention. According to the Louisiana Workforce Commission, GEO Secure Services said it intends to layoff 119 employees in early January.

GEO Secure Services referred questions about Pine Prairie to ICE.

ICE said in a statement to NBC News that it intends to “consolidate” the detention population at some facilities to “ensure proper staffing levels.”

The agency said that “due to staffing challenges” it would reduce the population at Pine Prairie by transferring detainees to a nearby facility, deporting others and releasing some on a case-by-case basis. The agency did not say what facility the detainees would be transferred to.

“This consolidation is not part of an effort to reduce overall detention capacity but is instead an administrative action designed to maximize detention efficiency and the use of our limited detention resources,” ICE said, adding the “decision to consolidate its detention population allows the agency to use its limited detention resources more efficiently.”

According to the latest data available from ICE, there were nearly 400 detainees at Pine Prairie as of the end of November, before the transfers. There were more than 1,460 at Winn, up from about 1,160 as of Sept. 30 and more than double the population in September 2022. ICE did not immediately respond to request for comment on the December detainee numbers.

One detainee who spoke to NBC News by phone and said he had been transferred from Pine Prairie told NBC News that the conditions at Winn were vastly worse.

“Outside everything looks really nice, but inside it’s scary,” Jose Pedro Velez Bazurto, from Ecuador, said in Spanish. He said he was transferred from Pine Prairie earlier this month with dozens of others.

“This is a prison. Pine Prairie wasn’t like this. It was much better than this," he said.

Velez Bazurto, 30, said the water at Winn “is 100% yellow, including the drinking water.” He said there were “flies and maggots” visible in the facility, filthy bathrooms, mold and “rust everywhere."

“I feel helpless. We all feel helpless. Here they treat us like garbage,” he said.

ICE did not immediately respond to questions about the allegations of poor conditions at Winn from advocates and Velez Bazurto.

In July, an ICE spokesperson said that the agency “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.”

The agency added that Winn is on the same water system as the city of Winnfield, which is managed and inspected by the city. 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 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.

LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, Louisiana, which operates Winn and other detention and corrections centers in several Southern states, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about conditions at the facility.

The facility has been the subject of years of complaints about inadequate medical care, filthy accommodations and mistreatment of detainees and has failed to remedy its ongoing issues, according to advocates and asylum-seekers.

migrant detention ice
A detainee at the Winn Correctional Center in 2019. ICE said last year that it was limiting use of three facilities, including Winn.Gerald Herbert / AP file

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 in February 2021 with testimony about what they described as “torture” and other abuses at the facility.

In June of that year, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security about reports of “abuses and inhumane conditions at Winn.”

“Many people have reported all of these persistent issues that have not changed,” said Mich González, the associate executive director of Freedom for Immigrants and steering member of the Southeast Dignity Not Detention Coalition.

In December 2021, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties wrote in a memorandum to the acting director of ICE at the time that after an investigation into Winn 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 housed 602 people in September of that year, according to ICE.

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

González said that despite ICE saying it would limit its use of Winn, the population has continued to grow. Advocates are calling for ICE to not renew its contract for Winn, which is set to expire in May. 

“This place is unfit for sentient life,” he said. “This is not a place where any human being should have to be.”