Tucked away in the dense woods of rural Louisiana is a barbed wire-ringed prison which has rapidly grown into a significant detention center for immigrants arrested at the border.
The Winn Correctional Center is one of eight Louisiana jails that have begun housing asylum seekers and other migrants within the last year, making Louisiana an unlikely epicenter for immigrant detention under President Donald Trump. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it is currently holding about 8,000 migrants in Louisiana from 51,000 nationwide.
These new facilities, a mixture of older state prisons and local jails, are several hours away from New Orleans and other important cities in the area, far from most immigrant rights’ groups and immigration attorneys. Migrants complain of mistreatment and prolonged detention.
“I knew they would detain us, but I never thought it would be for this long,” stated Howard Antonio Benavides Jr., an 18-year old from Venezuela who was in Winn for three months.
The surge in migrant detention has happened against the background of a criminal justice overhaul in Louisiana which has reduced the nation’s prison population and threatened the economies of those tiny cities that rely upon the jails.
ICE has stepped into the void. At Winn, which began detaining migrants in May, worker wages have climbed from $10 an hour 18. 50. Local officials have signed contracts which guarantee countless payments to the local authorities, the nation, along with a private prison firm based in the nation, while still allowing ICE to detain migrants in a daily cost well under its own national average.
ICE refused several requests to comment on why it concentrated on Louisiana. In a statement, it said it defines “contracts that can be modified to accommodate increased agency needs.”
ICE and the private prison company operating the centre, LaSalle Corrections, let The Associated Press to stop by Winn for three hours in September and take photographs and video under the condition that migrants’ faces not be shown.
The AP wasn’t permitted to talk to any detainee besides Benavides, who consented to an interview through his attorney. As a large group of migrants held in 1 tier began shouting “come here,” in Spanish, jail officials prevented observers from coming to the immigrants and steered them out. The guys continued to shout from the windows.
Almost 1,500 migrants are being held at Winn, where they sleep on twin beds in long, narrow units with barred gates. Formerly a medium-security prison, Winn has a dining hall, outdoor soccer fields, a gymnasium, and a chapel built by former offenders.
Throughout the AP’s trip, a group of migrants played football, with others refereeing the match and keeping score. Around 200 folks sat in the chapel listening to a different detainee — a Pentecostal preacher — talk of God and Jesus.
The majority of the detainees appeared to be Spanish speakers. Others spoke Hindi and wore orange sheets wrapped around their heads.
A couple of classrooms have been turned into virtual courtrooms with video teleconferencing equipment where migrants can appear before immigration judges located in New Mexico. Nurses and medical staff provide check-ups in a practice on site.
Detainees are needed to walk from site to site with their hands clasped behind their backs, as if they’re handcuffed. Most workers do not speak Spanish or Hindi and speak with migrants with hand signals or a couple of words of English that one individual can interpret to others.
Benavides said he had been sent here earlier in the year after he and his father sought asylum in June in an official port of entry in El Paso, Texas. Both were arrested together in Texas and Mississippi, then taken to different jails in Louisiana. They have not been allowed to talk to each other as.
In interviews, migrants and their families said officials occasionally used a solitary confinement cell to hold detainees accused of violating rules. To Winn’s Spanish speakers, it’s referred to as a “pozo,” meaning a well or a pit.
ICE says it complies with its rules on segregating inmates, which state detainees could be confined alone for “presenting a clear threat to the security of the facility,” and insisted in a statement that it’s “committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
Authorities at Winn say there has been little trouble thus far, as immigrants are better behaved and easier to manage than convicts.
“When you have convicted felons, they act a lot different,” stated Keith Deville, the facility’s warden.
The 51,000 immigrants which ICE is holding across the country is just short of an agency record set earlier this season and is a few thousand more than approved by Congress. The amount of detainees has stayed above 50,000 even as border crossings have dropped in recent months and the Trump government has enacted new asylum limitations and programs to tamp down on migration, such as forcing tens of thousands of people to wait in Mexico while immigration courts review their cases.
Advocates blame the government for detaining valid asylum seekers who may otherwise be discharged with future court dates. They state the jails in Louisiana epitomize the issue.
A federal judge recently ruled that ICE was unlawfully refusing to release asylum seekers in Louisiana under its own authority to grant parole. Lawyers say hardly any men and women are allowed parole from Winn or other facilities in the nation. Without it, detainees must ask bond from an immigration judge, which may take weeks.
The relatives of one migrant arrested at Winn provided the AP with a typewritten list of conditions for release they stated was posted within the jail, weeks following the judge’s ruling. The four states were pregnancy, being underage, critical illness such as Stage 4 cancer, or being a witness in a federal criminal case.
Luz Lopez, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she’s heard many reports of migrants being given the record, which she said seems to violate ICE’s own guidelines for granting parole.
ICE said reports about the record were “false” and added it determines whether to release inmates on a case by case basis.
Pedro Cordoves Diaz, a 26-year old from Cuba, was released from Winn in late September, the same day the AP visited the centre. He was released on $10,000 bond, paid by relatives in New Jersey.
“I stayed in my bed waiting for the moment to leave to arrive,” he explained.
Immigration detention has become more and more controversial throughout the Trump government, which separated tens of thousands of households as part of a “zero-tolerance” policy in the U.S.-Mexico border.
ICE has expanded its presence in Louisiana as other nations have advised the agency to remain out.
California and Illinois have prohibited private immigration jails entirely, and even in conservative Texas, the Republican-led authorities in Williamson County voted to finish ICE detention in a 500-bed jail.
There is no such immunity in Winn Parish or other rural Louisiana communities.
Winnfield is the biggest city in the parish at 4,400 individuals — down from 5,700 two years ago — and the birthplace of legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. Its little downtown has as many vacant storefronts as it does open stores. Timber trucks carrying chopped logs from surrounding forests roll down the street. Sheriff Cranford Jordan states that aside from timber, the region’s two largest job motors are the schools and the prison.
A decrease in prison population could eventually have led to the prison Jordan said.
“It would be devastating,” he explained. “You’d see people moving, bankruptcy. It would be like an automobile plant closing.”
Jordan, ICE, and LaSalle Corrections, which was running the prison, agreed in May to a five-year contract, with the possibility to add five more.
ICE pays around $70 per day for each inmate,” Jordan said, over twice what the state was paying to house convicts. That’s still well below what ICE pays nationwide, which it estimated at around $133 daily in 2017.
Jordan said he encouraged ICE coming in and called the influx of immigrant detainees that a “blessing” of funding and jobs.
Since ICE detention has grown in the country, so has the use of LaSalle Corrections, a privately held firm based in Ruston, Louisiana.
LaSalle operates six of the eight transformed jails which have opened since last year. In August, LaSalle hired the former acting director of ICE’s enforcement and elimination branch in New Orleans as a development executive. LaSalle also made a $2,000 contribution to the sheriff’s campaign in March.
It has faced criticism in its prisons before.
LaSalle was sued after an inmate died in 2015 in its prison in Texarkana, Texas. A federal magistrate judge this year found that prison staff failed to perform daily checks and violated “basic nursing standards” in their treatment of the inmate.
Four former guards in the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, which also is operated by LaSalle, were sentenced to federal prison terms following a 2016 episode where offenders were pepper-sprayed while kneeling and handcuffed. Richwood became an immigration detention centre this past year.
LaSalle declined to comment on complaints about mistreatment or about how immigration detention variables into its organization.
The facilities are spread out across Louisiana, connected by rural roads winding through woods and farmland. To advocates, the isolation is a critical problem for immigrants.
“Just the fact that you’re detaining people in such rural, isolated places makes it not only difficult for the person themselves to fight their case, but it even makes it nearly impossible for them to get attorneys to represent them,” said Homero López, executive director of the New Orleans-based Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy.
Among the few people to see the majority of the centers across Louisiana is Alex Melendez, who together with his son runs a taxi service to pick up immigrants.
For rates starting at $100, he compels immigrants into the long-distance bus station or airport in Alexandria, just over an hour away from Winn, or occasionally to New Orleans or Houston, each four hours off.
Calls for pickups have surged in the past year, occasionally with calls from four different jails in 1 day.
Melendez says he listens to the migrants’ stories about why they fled their homes or what it was like for them indoors. Some Spanish speakers are confounded by grits, a Southern staple not commonly found outside america, and refer to them as “arroz sin sabor” — tasteless rice.
At times, they get emotional.
It happened recently when Melendez drove up to a different detention centre to pick up someone who’d just been released.
“He just kneeled down,” he explained. “He praised the Lord. He thanked the Lord he was free.”