When more than 60 prisoners at the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile, LA, began a hunger strike last week, in protest of the facility's deplorable conditions, guards at the immigrant detention center placed at least six of them in solitary confinement for 60 days. The planned 72-hour strike was the fifth of its kind in one month at the facility, whose parent company, LCS Corrections Services, holds a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to manage the detention center.
Last week, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, along with other human rights and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urging her to address the mounting complaints at the detention center. "Over the past one month this center has become a symbol of all of our national concerns about ICE's widespread failure to ensure its facilities … meet ICE's own minimum detention standards," wrote Saket Soni, Executive Director for the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Detainees, he wrote, are "risking their own health to call attention to ICE's violation if its own minimum standards and to demand permanent improvements."
This move came one day after the Obama administration issued its own letter on July 27, 2009, in response to a federal court petition, stating its refusal to create lawfully enforceable rules for immigration detention. The letter, from the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, concluded that "rulemaking would be laborious, time-consuming and less flexible" than the Bush-era practice of monitoring detention standards -- inspections void of any legal retribution. That same day, immigrant detainees held at the South Louisiana Correctional Center began their hunger strike, protesting the conditions they are forced to endure, and denouncing the Obama Administration's decision to continue a practice that they say is simply not working.
The New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice has maintained contact with more than 100 detainee human rights monitors, chronicling the detention facility's environment. In a report, the group detailed how the facility consistently violates whole portions of ICE's 2008 mandates outlined in its Performance Based National Detention Standards. The guidelines, which were revised from previous standards set in 2000, defines measures for Medical Care, Hunger Strikes, Access to Legal Materials and Disciplinary Policies and more -- but detainees say the standards are neither monitored nor satisfied.
When Immigrant Detention Is a Death Sentence
Juan Marin Corona is a detainee and human rights monitor at the South Louisiana Correctional Center, where chronic myelogenous leukemia and diabetes are eating away at his body. He has said that he's prepared to sacrifice his life in detention in order to get the Obama administration to pay attention to the circumstances he faces. Corona may literally be preparing to die: he says he has not received a medical examination, much less the medication necessary to combat his grave illnesses, since he arrived at the facility about two months ago. Corona, who says he's never seen an ICE inspector monitor the facility, says that he hopes his "body will provide testimony that the system needs to change." For Corona, that change would occur when ICE terminates its contract with the facility that's putting his life at risk.
Detainee Fausto Gonzales was brought to the detention center in late June, and compares the mostly non-existent treatment for his high blood pressure, allergies, asthma, and claustrophobia to other immigrant detention facilities he has been held, in New York and Pennsylvania. Like Corona, Gonzales says he hasn't received a medical examination either. He was offered allergy pills, but they didn't help his condition. He explains that the rodents and insects that litter his cell aggravate the effects of the facility's lack of ventilation, which further impacts his asthma. Despite his condition, Gonzales has been trying to fight his deportation case. This has proven difficult; although the Correctional Center has a law library, he says he lacks regular access to it, and was only allowed to visit once, for an hour. Because there is no privacy for what should be confidential legal calls, he has to talk to his lawyer in New York on a phone where others can hear him.
The conditions described by Corona and Gonzales are in clear violation of ICE's official standards for medical care -- which stipulate that "[a] detainee who requires close, chronic or convalescent medical supervision will be treated in accordance with a written plan approved by licensed physician." According to ICE's own standards manual, all detainees should be provided to regular access to the law library. They should also be supplied with law books in languages other than English when needed, but detainees claim such books are not available, even after they request them. Detainees and their advocates say that other measures indicated in ICE's guidelines are regularly ignored and violated, including access to phones and other communication, supplies of clothing, bedding and towels, providing nutritious food, and honoring different religious practices.
Inmates who have staged hunger strikes at the South Louisiana Correctional Center say that they complained at length about conditions, and that when they spoke out about starting their strike, riot-clad guards began to intimidate them. ICE's standards specify that the course of action for isolating a detainee on hunger strike, possibly in need of treatment, should be carried out by a medical professional: if, after 72 hours of refusing food, staff determines that the detainee is indeed on hunger strike, s/he must be referred to a medical department which would evaluate is medical isolation is necessary.
Nevertheless, detainees strategically planned to end their fast within 72 hours, and therefore would never have been eligible for medical confinement under federal guidelines. Soni, says that guards once again ignored ICE's standards and retaliated against detainees who monitor and report violations to advocates by placing them in disciplinary -- not medical -- segregation. He says the detainees placed in isolation never saw a nurse or doctor and that "they were never asked about their health. All were handcuffed and, in some cases, shackled and taken to punitive, disciplinary isolation." Soni states that detainee Joaquin Lopez Pena was threatened by jail staff that his deportation proceeding would be indefinitely delayed unless he agreed to end his hunger strike. On the very day the Obama Administration asserted that existing performance standards were sufficient to maintain benchmarks for facilities that house immigrant detainees, Soni and other advocates said new violations are emerging.
ICE is charged with oversight on each private facility to which it awards contracts. According to ICE's local Field Office Director, Philip Miller, his agency conducts an extensive annual review at the South Louisiana Correction Center, in addition to a daily inspection, carried out by an on-site contractor who prepares a weekly compliance report. When questioned about allegations regarding the continued lack of oversight or accountability, Miller says he personally visited the facility this week, "and is very pleased with the level of oversight, the facility's preventive maintenance program and the interaction between staff and the detainees." But the testimonies of some 100 detainees directly counter Miller's claim.
In the letter sent to Secretary Janet Napolitano on July 28, 2009, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, and other organizations requested that she authorize a delegation of political, religious and detainee rights advocates tour the South Louisiana Correction Center within two weeks. Napolitano has yet to acknowledge the letter. Department of Homeland Security Press Secretary Matt Chandler says that while there is no set timeline for response, "the Department makes an effort to respond to letters in a timely fashion." Richard Harbison, LCS Vice President and sole Spokesperson for the South Louisiana Correction Center, was unavailable for comment because he is on vacation this week.
For detainees who are risking their health and being denied medical care, however, every moment counts. And its not just their physical health that has suffered. For prisoners like Franco Jobany, whose futile attempts to access legal materials at the facility has demoralized him, ICE's timeline for response is hopelessly inadequate. Describing his experience at the South Louisiana Correctional Center, Jobany says, "Psychologically, all this has killed me."
Aura Bogado is a freelance journalist and writer.