Winn Correctional Center, Winn Parish, Louisiana
August 2, 2020
On Sunday, August 2, detainees in Elm Unit at the Winn Correctional Center in Winn Parish, Louisiana launched a protestagainst indefinite detention and to demand action and information related to their cases. During the protest, detainees shouted and banged on food dishes. With limited options to have their voices heard, detainees resolved to take whatever action they could. One participant described the protest in an interview with Perilous Chronicle, saying “We’re locked up, practically the only thing we can do is shout”.
The demonstration spread widely within the facility. Detainees in all 8 tiers of Elm Unit participated in the protests, and according to some detainees, the protest also spread to neighboring Ash Unit. “There are thirty-eight people in the cell that I’m in,” said Lesmes Pérez Reyes, a Cuban asylum seeker. “And in all the surrounding cells, people protested. At least three-hundred people and in the other bunker, Ash. I’m in Elm, and in Ash they protested as well. Approximately three-hundred people, more or less.” Detainees also made a banner out of a bed sheet that read “FREEDOM”.
Chemical Weapons Used Against Protestors
In response to the protest, guards operating under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to negotiate and shot pepper spray into the unit, according to all eight detainees who spoke with Perilous. All detainees spoke Spanish and their testimonies were translated by Perilous.
“We were hitting the plates we eat off of with spoons, just trying to get their attention,” said Selvyn Lima, a Guatemalan immigrant who said he has been detained at Winn for nearly fifteen months. “And they came and sprayed us with pepper spray, they put it in the air vents, that was their way of quieting us down. They could have done it a different way, but they preferred to do it that way.”
“I don’t care about what might happen to me, let it happen,” said Iván García, regarding possible retaliation for speaking out about conditions at Winn. García is a Cuban detainee who says he has been incarcerated at Winn for 15 months. “They can do their worst to me in this prison. If they kill me in the hole, I’ll go out satisfied. But I’m going to denounce the crimes and abuses that are happening to us…”
ICE officials confirmed that “oc spray” was used against protesting detainees on Sunday. According to ICE, “detainees participated in an impromptu protest at the Winn Correctional Facility. After multiple attempts by contract staff to deescalate the situation were unsuccessful and as detainees continued to refuse to comply with numerous commands given by contract staff, the contract staff of the facility disbursed oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as OC Spray.”
Some detainees reported vomiting blood after being sprayed.
“On Friday, people passed out here inside,” Lima continued. “We asked [the guards] to look, that people had passed out, that they couldn’t breathe, and they just laughed about how we were rolling around on the floor. They put pepper spray in the air vents and it went into the entire unit, there wasn’t a way to avoid it. Some people were vomiting, some down on the floor.”
Marilyn Navas, Lima’s fiance, said that Lima is asthmatic and that he could barely speak the next day when he called her. According to Navas, Lima was deported less than a week after the protest.
ICE officials added that, “as part of established protocol, the Winn Parish Sheriff Department did respond to the facility, but did not enter the facility or interact with detainees in any manner.”
Detention with No End in Sight
Winn Correctional Center is operated by the private prison corporation LaSalle Corrections, which took over the facility from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 2015. In May 2019, LaSalle signed a contract with ICE to house immigrant detainees as part of the vast immigrant detention network that was spreading throughout Louisiana at the time. Louisiana has had more prisoner and detainee-led protests than any other state in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data compiled by Perilous.
The detainees reported a wide variety of conditions and abuses that motivated them to protest. They spoke of grievances related to the immigration and asylum process as well as the conditions of their confinement at Winn Correctional. Complaints ranged from acts of disrespect and disruption on the part of guards–such as removing the microwave from the unit at random or kicking detainees’ beds when they’re sleeping–to racism, systemic injustices and human rights abuses. A profound sense of desperation permeates their testimonies. In some cases, they were literally begging for help.
Most reported that they had no idea when their period of detention would end and said their main motivation for the protest was demanding basic information about their cases. All reported being detained by ICE for a year or more, either awaiting deportation or awaiting the next steps in their deportation case.
Detainees also mentioned the absence of ICE officials at the facility. When asked if ICE negotiated with them during the protest, Reyes responded, “ICE hasn’t come here. That day, no official from ICE came. It was just police, guards, with pistols and pepper spray.”
“The ICE officials say that every forty-five days, ICE officials change prisons, but here they’ve never shown their faces, we’ve never seen an official from ICE,” said Lima. “What we wanted was at least for them to come to tell us what was going to happen, if they were going to deport us, if they were going to let us leave.”
Several detainees reported wanting to be deported in order to escape the miserable conditions of ICE detention. “I lost my asylum [request] and for 96 days, I’ve basically been a deportee but they haven’t deported me,” Lima said. “They keep telling me I have to wait. What they’re doing to us is a business.”
The Business of Incarceration
Shane Bauer worked undercover as a guard at Winn in 2015 to write his 2019 book American Prison. Bauer, in an interview with Perilous, described how many of the conditions at the facility are the result of a private prison corporation trying to save money in any way possible.
According to Bauer, in addition to awful conditions, the facility was in a constant state of unpredictability and “disarray” during his time there. “Even lunch time was completely irregular. It could happen at 11 in the morning, it could happen at 3 pm. Programs were always getting cancelled. The facility would go on lockdown, mostly because of under-staffing. The company was paying $9 per hour at the time. And they had a hard time getting enough people to work there. And the prisoners would pay the price for this.”
Four years later in 2019, starting pay at Winn was still just $10/hour, according to The Times-Picayune. Since the facility signed a contract with ICE that year, starting pay rose to $18 dollars per hour.
Winn Parish Sheriff Cranford Jordan told the Associated Press in October that the influx of money from warehousing immigrants has been a “blessing” to the devastated rural economy of Louisiana. The rapid rise in the number of immigrant detainees housed in Louisiana is in large part due to the low per-diem rate facilities in the state charge ICE. According to The Times-Picayune, the average cost of housing an ICE detainee in Louisiana is about $65 per day, as compared with the average national rate of $126 per day.
Nonetheless, the influx of money does not seem to have improved conditions much, at least according to detainees at Winn who spoke with Perilous. Some described conditions in the facility as being worse than the conditions in the often war-torn places they’d initially fled to come to the United States.
“I think that if we had known, we wouldn’t have come and ended up in this hell we’re living in,” said Lima.
Delays to Deportation Proceedings
One of the main concerns the detainees expressed was the long delays and lack of clarity regarding their deportation proceedings.
“We’re asking for information on our cases,” said Daniel Mejia who is detained at Winn and who said he has lived in the United States for more than twenty years. “We had a protest Sunday night to get information from ICE about how they’re processing our cases, regarding deportation. Because there are a lot of people here who have had deportation orders for more than a year who have not been deported.”
“I need to be deported as soon as possible,” Mejia continued, “because my mother is elderly and is very sick. I need to go to see her.”
According to a recent report by The New York Times, ICE has continued to carry out deportations during the pandemic, including deportations of immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before deportation. Nonetheless, detainees at Winn report that ICE is holding many people for long periods of time instead of either deporting or releasing them.
“They tell us that we have to wait. That they don’t know if our country, which is Cuba, is going to accept us because of the pandemic. So we have to remain prisoners,” said García.
In March, the Cuban government closed its borders to non-Cuban citizens as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an order which it recently extended. According to several immigration attorneys familiar with the matter, the Cuban government is currently refusing deportations to the island. The Department of Homeland Security considers Cuba a “recalcitrant” country, a term which refers to “countries that systematically refuse or delay the repatriation of their citizens.”
Detainment During a Pandemic
Another primary concern described by the detainees was the risks they faced being detained in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this risk, some protestors demanded their immediate release. “Simply, during the weekend we were protesting the denial of our freedom. The coronavirus is here and it’s quarantine, quarantine, day after day because of the coronavirus,” said Lesmes Pérez Reyes.
“The conditions here because of the pandemic, everyone’s in here, there aren’t masks, we aren’t in adequate conditions to survive, practically,” said Lima.
There are 22 active cases of COVID-19 at Winn Correctional, according to statistics maintained by ICE. But detainees at other ICE-contracted facilities report unwillingness to be tested out of fear of being transferred to medical quarantine units, where conditions are often much worse.
Shemoi Edwards, an ICE detainee who was recently released from the Etowah County Jail in Alabama, said that officers at that facility use the threat of medical isolation to prevent people from asking to be tested for the virus. One factor that motivates detainees in particular, he said, is the threat of restricted use of the law library during a medical quarantine that results from testing positive for COVID-19.
“These are a lot of individuals at the last stage of their immigration proceedings. So at any moment they would have to go to that law library and put in an emergency stay of removal so they won’t get deported,” Edwards said in his interview. “They let us know that so that individuals do not get tested, because if they get tested, I feel like there would be close to 80 people at Etowah that’s currently sick. And I speak to a few of them to this day that are still sick to this day, but are afraid to take that test”
ICE reports 21 active cases of COVID-19 at Etowah, but this number does not include COVID-19 cases among detainees in the sections of the county jail that do not house ICE detainees. Officials at Etowah confirmed that there are cases of COVID-19 at the facility among detainees not in the custody of ICE.
Luckily, most detainees interviewed at Elm unit of Winn Correctional reported no cases of COVID in their immediate unit. But all reported that many detainees suffer from a variety of health problems that go untreated by the facility, in part due to jail staff providing inadequate medical treatment.
These allegations resonate with the history of medical care at the facility, according to Bauer, despite his having worked there when it was run by CCA, not LaSalle. “Medical was terrible when I was there,” he said. “That was one of the main issues. Medical is terrible throughout the US prison system, but at Winn, I think, the degree of the problem had a lot to do with the fact that it was run by a private prison company.”
According to Bauer, if prisoners required any kind of care beyond the basic services available at the in-house infirmary, CCA was required to pay their hospital bill according to their contract with the state. “So the company was really reluctant to do anything outside the basic services they had at the infirmary, because it was a massive expense.”
“We came to this country seeking freedom,” said Iván García. “We came here because it’s a country with human rights. Supposedly a country where we can be free, where we can provide a future for our children. The last thing we’ve found here is freedom. Since we’ve arrived its been imprisonment, mistreatment, and we’re denouncing that. We’re not looking for trouble. They’re recording me and I don’t care, that they’re recording and supervising this call. But a lot of news doesn’t get out about this center, because when we report it, they cut the recordings and threaten to put us in the hole if we keep reporting what’s going on. All these things are happening in this prison.”
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Detainees who spoke to Perilous all gave their explicit consent for their voices to be shared as widely as possible in the hopes that their testimonies may bring about the changes they so desperately need. Some expressed outrage that their voices are rarely heard and that the media fails to tell their stories. We are posting them here with only minor edits in hopes that journalists, human rights workers, and others may use them to better understand and take action in regard to the conditions at Winn Correctional and throughout the country’s vast carceral network.
Article by Ryan Fatica. Recordings from detainees at Winn were translated and transcribed by Scott Campbell and others.
Article published: August 7, 2020; Updated August 21, 2020.