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Migrants held in detention centers owned by a private prison company in Louisiana say they’re berated by guards, given moldy food, and placed in solitary confinement for protesting against the conditions they face.
Despite years of documented and alleged abuse at its facilities, Ruston, Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections has experienced a boom thanks to the Trump administration's immigration policies. Over the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has contracted eight new immigrant detention facilities in Louisiana, six of which are former prisons or jails owned and operated by LaSalle.
Earlier this month, a migrant held at LaSalle’s Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe died by suicide after being put in solitary confinement as punishment for participating in a hunger strike. Another migrant detained at the same facility, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker with diabetes and hypertension, has seen his health deteriorate because of the food served in the facility, his lawyer told VICE News.
“We have requested, because of his medical condition, for him to be released on his own recognizance or through a bond,” his lawyer, Nathalia Dickson, said. “He’s been to the clinic they have in Richwood and has been going there to talk to the doctor. However, I see through his medical records that he’s not being properly treated.”
Richwood isn’t the only LaSalle-owned facility where detainees say they aren’t treated well. Yuselys, a Cuban asylum-seeker whose partner is detained at LaSalle’s Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, said the people held there are in physical and psychological distress.
“All of the people who are detained there are suffering,” Yuselys, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told VICE News. “They’re anxious, they’re depressed, they lay in bed all day and don’t want to get up for anything because of how depressed they are.”
Yuselys said she often has to send money to her partner so he can buy food from the commissary, since the food in Winn’s cafeteria is occasionally moldy. She said other detainees suffer from stomach aches because of the food. Now that winter is coming, she has to send him money for a jacket, too; she said the facility hasn’t provided any.
Winn, a former prison, started detaining migrants for ICE in May. The federal government pays the county $70 a day for each migrant detained in the facility, the Winnfield County sheriff told the Associated Press in October. That’s more than twice what the state paid.
From jails and prisons to immigrant detention
Founded in 1997 by former nursing home owner Billy McConnell, LaSalle quickly became one of the biggest players in Louisiana’s rapidly growing private prison industry. By 2012, one in seven prisoners in Louisiana were held in a LaSalle-owned facility, according to a report by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
In 2017, when Richwood was still being used as a county jail, the families of two inmates filed wrongful death suits against LaSalle after one inmate stomped another to death before being killed by a guard. Both inmates’ families said LaSalle’s lack of adequate training for guards led to the deaths.
Earlier this year, four former Richwood guards were found guilty of pepper spraying kneeling, handcuffed inmates at the facility — or of standing by while others did. Those guards no longer work at Richwood, which now holds civil immigrant detainees instead of people being held on criminal grounds.
Though Richwood and the other LaSalle facilities are now used for civil detention, advocates say the culture of abuse and neglect hasn’t changed.
“When you’re looking at cases of medical neglect, they [private prison companies like LaSalle] have every incentive not to help people medically if it’s going to cost them money,” said Sofia Casini, the southern regional coordinator at the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants. She helps organize visits to detention centers in Louisiana, including LaSalle’s facilities.
Casini also said volunteers and migrants’ relatives have told her that there have been other suicide attempts in Richwood, the facility where a migrant committed suicide in October. After his death, Casini said, some migrants protested in the detention facility’s yard and were beaten and handcuffed.
ICE officers were called in to the facility to break up the protest, according to Dickson, and one officer beat two of her other clients, both of whom are Cuban asylum-seekers. One received cuts under his eyes; her other client fractured his rib. An ICE spokesperson denied the allegations.
“Facility staff, with support from ICE personnel, talked with the detainees and defused the situation,” the spokesperson said. “When a single detainee began to actively resist officers, he had to be placed in restraints. The facility returned to normal conditions.”
In a statement, LaSalle spokesperson Scott Sutterfield told VICE News that the company is “deeply committed to delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments.”
“In general, LaSalle Corrections fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference and we do not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” Sutterfield said. “All allegations are taken very seriously and in addition to our facilities internal review process, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigate all allegations of abuse.”
The seemingly indefinite nature of detention can also exacerbate the conditions in Richwood and other facilities, according to migrant’s family members. But the decision to release migrants doesn’t fall on the facilities, but on ICE.
“All of the people who are detained there are suffering.”
Many asylum-seekers have been detained at facilities in Louisiana and across the Southeast for months. Even migrants who have passed their initial asylum interviews, known as “credible fear” screenings, and proven they aren’t a flight risk or a danger to the community have been denied parole, advocates say. ICE was detaining nearly 9,000 migrants who had passed these interviews in facilities across the country as of August.
Denial of parole for asylum-seekers who have passed their initial screenings isn’t new: Two 2016 reports by Human Rights First found instances of migrants being denied parole in facilities in Georgia and New Jersey. But it’s become more prevalent under Trump. In 2017, Human Rights First found that parole approvals dropped sharply after the president issued an executive order requiring the Department of Homeland Security to detain immigrants for the entirety of their proceedings.
Parole denials have become particularly common in the five states covered by the New Orleans’ ICE field which granted 75% of parole applications in 2016 compared to just 1.5% last year, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in May.
A federal judge temporarily blocked ICE from categorically denying asylum-seekers parole in September, but migrants’ lawyers and relatives say they’re still being denied release. An ICE spokesperson told VICE News that each parole decision “is judged on its own merits with the totality of the situation being considered.”
Yuselys, for example, said she hasn’t seen her partner in nearly six months. They fled Cuba together, made the trek from southern Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border, and asked for asylum at a port of entry in April. But since they aren’t legally married, they were split up: She was sent to a women’s detention center for two months, and he was shuffled from facility to facility before ending up at Winn in June.
Cover image: A detainee sits in a room to use a telephone inside the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)