By NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press
WINNFIELD, La. (AP) — Tucked away in the dense forest of rural Louisiana is a barbed wire-ringed prison that has quickly grown into a major detention center for immigrants detained at the border.
The Winn Correctional Center is one of eight Louisiana jails that have started housing asylum seekers and other migrants over the past year, making Louisiana an unlikely epicenter for immigrant detention under President Donald Trump. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it’s now holding about 8,000 migrants in Louisiana out of 51,000 nationally.
These new facilities, a mix of old state prisons and local jails, are several hours away from New Orleans and other major cities in the region, far from most immigrant rights’ groups and immigration lawyers. Migrants complain of mistreatment and prolonged detention.
“I knew they would detain us, but I never thought it would be for this long,” said Howard Antonio Benavides Jr., an 18-year-old from Venezuela who has been at Winn for three months.
The surge in migrant detention has occurred against the backdrop of a criminal justice overhaul in Louisiana that has reduced the state’s prison population and threatened the economies of the small towns that rely on the jails.
ICE has stepped into the void. At Winn, which started detaining migrants in May, employee salaries have risen from $10 an hour to $18.50. Local officials have signed contracts that guarantee millions in payments to the local government, the state, and a private prison company based in the state, while still allowing ICE to detain migrants at a daily cost well below its national average.
ICE refused several requests to comment on why it focused on Louisiana. In a statement, it said it identifies “contracts that can be modified to accommodate increased agency needs.”
ICE and the private prison company operating the facility, LaSalle Corrections, allowed The Associated Press to visit Winn for three hours in September and take photos and video under the condition that migrants’ faces not be shown.
The AP was not allowed to speak to any detainee besides Benavides, who agreed to an interview through his lawyer. As a large group of migrants held in one tier started shouting “come here,” in Spanish, jail officials prevented observers from approaching the immigrants and directed them outside. The men continued to shout from the windows.
Nearly 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 inmates.
During the AP’s visit, a group of migrants played soccer, with others refereeing the game and keeping score. Around 200 people sat in the chapel listening to another detainee —a Pentecostal preacher— speak of God and Jesus.
Most of the detainees appeared to be Spanish speakers. Others spoke Hindi and wore orange coverings wrapped around their heads.
A few classrooms have been turned into virtual courtrooms with video teleconferencing equipment where migrants can appear before immigration judges based in New Mexico. Nurses and medical staff provide check-ups at a clinic on site.
Detainees are required to walk from site to site with their hands clasped behind their backs, as if they are handcuffed. Most employees don’t speak Spanish or Hindi and communicate with migrants using hand signals or a few words of English that one person can translate to others.
Benavides said he was sent here earlier in the year after he and his father sought asylum in June at an official port of entry in El Paso, Texas. The two were detained together in Texas and Mississippi, then taken to separate jails in Louisiana. They haven’t been allowed to speak to each other since.
In interviews, migrants and their families said officials sometimes used a solitary confinement cell to hold detainees accused of violating rules. To Winn’s Spanish speakers, it is known as a “pozo,” meaning a well or a hole.
ICE says it complies with its own rules on segregating inmates, which say detainees can be confined alone for “presenting a clear threat to the security of the facility,” and insisted in a statement that it is “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’s been little trouble so far, as immigrants are better behaved and easier to oversee than convicts.
“When you have convicted felons, they act a lot different,” said Keith Deville, the facility’s warden.
The 51,000 immigrants that ICE is holding across the country is just short of an agency record set earlier this year and is several thousand more than authorized by Congress. The number of detainees has remained above 50,000 even as border crossings have fallen in recent months and the Trump administration has enacted new asylum restrictions and programs to tamp down on migration, including forcing tens of thousands of people to wait in Mexico while immigration courts review their cases.
Advocates blame the administration for detaining legitimate asylum seekers who could otherwise be released with future court dates. They say the jails in Louisiana epitomize the problem.
A federal judge recently ruled that ICE was unlawfully refusing to release asylum seekers in Louisiana under its authority to grant parole. Lawyers say very few people are granted parole from Winn or other facilities in the state. Without it, detainees must request bond from an immigration judge, which can take months.
The relatives of one migrant detained at Winn provided the AP with a typewritten list of conditions for release they said was posted inside the jail, weeks after the judge’s ruling. The four conditions were pregnancy, being underage, critical illness such as Stage 4 cancer, or being a witness in a federal criminal case.
Luz López, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she has heard many reports of migrants being given the list, which she said appears to violate ICE’s own guidelines for granting parole.
ICE said reports about the list were “false” and added that it decides whether to release inmates on a case by case basis.
Pedro Cordovés Díaz, a 26-year-old from Cuba, was released from Winn in late September, the same day the AP visited the facility. 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 said.
Immigration detention has become increasingly controversial during the Trump administration, which separated thousands of families as part of a “zero-tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.
ICE has expanded its presence in Louisiana as other states have told the agency to stay out.
California and Illinois have banned private immigration jails altogether, and even in conservative Texas, the Republican-led government in Williamson County voted to end ICE detention at a 500-bed jail.
There’s no such resistance in Winn Parish or other rural Louisiana communities.
Winnfield is the largest city in the parish at 4,400 people —down from 5,700 two decades ago— and the birthplace of legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. Its tiny downtown has as many empty storefronts as it does open shops. Timber trucks carrying chopped logs from surrounding forests roll down the highway. Sheriff Cranford Jordan says that aside from lumber, the area’s two biggest job engines are the schools and the prison.
A decline in prison population could eventually have led to the prison closing, Jordan said.
“It would be devastating,” he said. “You’d see people moving, bankruptcy. It would be like an automobile plant closing.”
Jordan, ICE, and LaSalle Corrections, which was already running the prison, agreed in May to a five-year contract, with an option to add five more.
ICE pays around $70 per day for each inmate, Jordan said, more than double what the state was paying to house convicts. That is still well below what ICE pays nationally, which it estimated at around $133 per day in 2017.
Jordan said he supported ICE coming in and called the influx of immigrant detainees a “blessing” of jobs and funding.
As ICE detention has grown in the state, so has the role of LaSalle Corrections, a privately held company based in Ruston, Louisiana.
LaSalle operates six of the eight converted jails that have opened since last year. In August, LaSalle hired the former acting director of ICE’s enforcement and removal division 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 at its prisons before.
LaSalle was sued after an inmate died in 2015 at its jail in Texarkana, Texas. A federal magistrate judge this year found that jail staff failed to do daily checks and violated “basic nursing standards” in their treatment of the inmate.
Four former guards at the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, which also is operated by LaSalle, were sentenced to federal prison terms after a 2016 incident in which inmates were pepper-sprayed while kneeling and handcuffed. Richwood became an immigration detention facility this year.
LaSalle declined to comment on complaints about mistreatment or about how immigration detention factors into its business.
The facilities are spread out across Louisiana, connected by rural roads winding through forests and farmland. To advocates, the isolation is a serious 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.
One of the few people to visit most of the facilities across Louisiana is Alex Meléndez, who with his son runs a taxi service to pick up immigrants.
For rates starting at $100, he drives immigrants to the long-distance bus station or airport in Alexandria, just over an hour away from Winn, or sometimes to New Orleans or Houston, each four hours away.
Calls for pickups have surged in the last year, sometimes with calls from four separate jails in one day.
Meléndez says he listens to the migrants’ stories about why they fled their homes or what it was like for them inside. Some Spanish speakers are confounded by grits, a Southern staple not commonly found outside the United States, and refer to them as “arroz sin sabor”—tasteless rice.
Sometimes, they get emotional.
It happened recently when Meléndez drove up to another detention facility to pick up someone who had just been released.
“He just kneeled down,” he said. “He praised the Lord. He thanked the Lord he was free.”