Officials at a federal immigration detention center in Louisiana routinely use unlawful force against detainees, including indiscriminately deploying tear gas inside at least one dormitory that was under quarantine for COVID-19, according to a series of civil rights complaints filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center this week.
The complaints, submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, center on Winn Correctional Center, a 1,500-bed facility operated by for-profit prison company LaSalle Corrections.
For months, detainees grew frustrated about seemingly endless stays inside Winn, which sits roughly 250 miles northwest of New Orleans in Winnfield, Louisiana, and began receiving detained immigrants from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May 2019.
Some countries, such as Guatemala, have paused or significantly slowed down the acceptance of deportees from the U.S. amid the pandemic, and many detainees remained housed in poor conditions at Winn even after deportation orders were handed down. Some were held for several months ― even a year, in some cases ― before being deported. Nearly all requests for parole are being denied, at least two detainees told SPLC.
This summer, protests broke out. And prison officials responded violently, the complaints say.
Five detainees alleged guards threw tear gas grenades into their dormitories on Aug. 2 after a protest flared up. The tear gas injured detained asylum-seekers who were not participating in the protests ― including elderly and sick people ― as well as those who were involved, according to the complaint.
One detainee said he had been calmly lying on his bed in the back of the dorm when guards threw tear gas into the room from the hallway. He said the tear gas caused him to vomit and almost faint because he is asthmatic.
“I was not participating in the protest. But everyone in the whole room was affected,” he said in the complaint. “They had cut off the water earlier, so we had no water to ameliorate the effects of the gases. I had never seen anything like this in my life. It was traumatizing.”
Another detainee from the same dorm said they weren’t provided medical treatment despite their apparent injuries.
“I was vomiting and coughing and I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “We had no water in the dorm so we couldn’t put water in our eyes to relieve the pain and injuries.”
After about two hours, the guards returned to the room, handcuffed everyone in the dorm and brought them to the gym, the detainee wrote. Some were returned to their rooms after hours in the gym, while others were taken to solitary confinement, according to the complaint.
Lara Nochomovitz, an attorney who represents several asylum-seekers held at Winn, said some of her clients told her protesters had broken some appliances, such as a microwave and television, during the unrest. But such actions don’t warrant the use of tear gas, she said.
“It doesn’t make excessive use of force the appropriate response and you don’t punish everybody because of what a few people did,” Nochomovitz told HuffPost. “One of the people described [the guards] shutting the doors, that they tear gassed and shut the doors. That sounds like a gas chamber.”
Neither the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, nor LaSalle Corrections immediately responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
That the incident occurred during the coronavirus pandemic only magnified the cruelty and danger of the tactic, she said. One of the dorms hit with tear gas was allegedly under quarantine at the time as a result of COVID-19 exposure, according to the complaint.
Sending tear gas into a dormitory with COVID-19 patients — potentially causing them to cough and spit excessively — seems likely to increase the risk of viral spread. Many immigration detention centers have struggled to contain the coronavirus inside their facilities, and Winn has reported more than 150 cases among detainees. At least one guard has died from complications of COVID-19.
Selvyn Eliseo Lima Arias, 24, was one of the detainees who did not participate in the protest but was exposed to the tear gas, according to the complaint. His fiancée, Marilynn Avass, said Arias called her the morning after the incident and told her there had been a “disaster” inside the detention center.
The tear gas “was coming through all the ACs,” Avass told HuffPost. “It was hard for him to breathe. ... He couldn’t breathe.”
Arias fled Guatemala last year to escape a family member who had harmed his mother and was threatening to kill him, Avass said. He was detained by U.S. federal immigration agents in April 2019 while crossing the border from Mexico.
He received a final order of deportation in April 2020, but continued to be held at Winn for another roughly 100 days until he was deported on Aug. 7.
“At the same time that I’m relieved that he’s out of there, I’m still desperate to have him here because I don’t want nothing to happen to him,” said Avass, who is a U.S. citizen. She said she worries his life is in danger now that he’s returned to Guatemala.
The judge who decided Arias’ case “had the opportunity to save his life,” Avass said. “I just think that people in Winnfield, they’re just heartless. They’re just unfair. They’re not humans.”
Beyond the drawn-out detainments, attorneys and immigrant rights advocates say detainees have pointed to other reasons for protesting: abuse of authority and violently forcing them to sign deportation orders.
In a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General last Friday, SPLC called on the office to investigate the “three incidents of violent abuse.” The alleged incidents, including the indiscriminate use of tear gas, were also outlined in the three subsequent complaints sent to CRCL.
Two of the incidents described involved ICE officials forcibly removing detained asylum-seekers from their dorms and forcing them to sign their deportation orders. Both men were in the process of pursuing appeals to the orders and did not have legal representation at the time, SPLC wrote in its letter.
One of the men said ICE officials violently threw him to the ground, causing his face to bleed profusely. The ICE officials told him they would lock him in solitary confinement if he told anyone what happened, according to SPLC’s letter.
“ICE’s and LaSalle Corrections’ violent conduct and use of duress tactics against detained individuals is unconstitutional and unacceptable,” SPLC wrote in its letter. “Accordingly, we demand an investigation of the continuous cruel and excessive abuses conducted by ICE officials and LaSalle Corrections officials against people detained at the Winn Correctional Center.”
As of Thursday, SPLC had not received a response from DHS’s OIG. While the office’s silence is disappointing, it may not be surprising.
Jaclyn Cole, a paralegal at SPLC, said the group requested investigations into abuses at two different federal detention facilities a year ago and ― aside from an acknowledgement of receipt ― never received a response.