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Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana is the latest ICE detention center to be suspected of awful living conditions and abuse of detainees. Photo: Hyoung Chang

Attorneys turn focus to Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center over terrible migrant housing conditions

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana — out of the Southern Poverty Law Center — sent two letters to DHS over reports of abuse and worse.

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On Thursday, June 10, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, sent two letters to the Department of Homeland Security concerning reports of abuse and deplorable conditions at the Winn Correctional Center. 

According to the letters, one detainee was hospitalized following a suicide attempt and there are reports of other detainees attempting to end their lives. 

The attorneys listed several injustices, including conditions that are unsuitable for humans to live under. At Winn, there were units for 44 people that contained only one urinal, two toilets, and two showers. 

One detainee allegedly discovered a live cockroach in one of his meals. Another was denied proper medical attention and was forced to remove a cyst from his own stomach. 

The horrible conditions led detainees to conduct hunger strikes at the facility, which resulted in the deployment of pepper spray by the guards. 

One detainee spoke of this experience to NBC News, saying that he was begging for guards to take him out of the room, as he was experiencing an asthma attack.

“One man fainted in front of me. But they left me there," said the detainee, who is originally from Cuba. 

The attorneys also described instances of guards using racist language against detainees. 

Mich Gonzalez, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told NBC News that the organizations are urging DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to immediately terminate all contracts with Winn, and open an investigation into the New Orleans (NOLA) ICE office. 

In one instance described in the letter, a detainee reported to Gonzalez that he was handcuffed and shoved down with his face pressed against the floor. The client said he was unable to breathe, and believed the officer’s knee was placed on his neck. 

He was placed in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life and was later deported back to his home country. The detainee, who spoke English, overheard Winn guards calling other detainees “illegal dogs,” and other derogatory terms. 

An ICE spokesperson responded to an NBC News inquiry about these specific allegations from former detainees and attorneys, stating that ICE is “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” 

Winn Correctional Center refused to speak with reporters about the allegations and referred the questions to ICE. 

Gonzalez said the population in the detention facilities overseen by the NOLA ICE field office has grown significantly, by about 5,000 more people in only a few months time. 

This increase is due to a number of factors, including increased migration patterns, and an increase in unauthorized border crossings, many from asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico after having been turned away at the border due to a COVID-19 public health order. 

According to Gonzalez, those who are detained and are seeking asylum are meant to be granted a credible fear interview within the first two weeks of being in ICE custody.

In reality, the process is taking much longer than 14 days — sometimes 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. 

He also explained that ICE is not providing appropriate language access for the interviews and are refusing to conduct swaths of interviews, even though it’s fairly simple to establish credible fear for an asylum seeker. 

“It’s not supposed to be a full asylum hearing,” Gonzalez said. 

Lara Nochomovitz, an independent lawyer with a large Louisiana client base who helps facilitate post-release services, told NBC News that her clients are constantly complaining of guard inflicted racism.

Additionally, many of those released have to pay high bonds, 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 that more detainees are being put in isolation. According to Homero López, executive director of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy in New Orleans, there have been many shocking cases.

López spoke of cases where gay men were placed in solitary ‘for their protection’ because other detainees harassed or assaulted them. He explained that one of the biggest issues with this use of punishment is that there’s no process in place to fight it or to get one’s time in isolation reduced.

In an April letter addressed to Mayorkas, the ACLU requested that 39 ICE facilities be shut down, 11 of them in Louisiana, including Winn.

This is not the first time that Winn Correctional Center has come under fire for abuse.

In early February, a group of migrant rights organizations, including Al Otro Lado and Freedom for Immigrants, presented allegations to the DHS of what they described as torture of Cameroonian asylum-seekers.

ICE has proven itself to be a rogue organization with little to no regard for the lives and wellbeing of its immigrant detainees. It’s time for the Department of Homeland Security to address these allegations, and terminate these contracts. 

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