Inside a sweltering housing unit with no power and a stench of human waste, men at one Louisiana immigration detention center pounded on the windows and pleaded to be let outside. It had been nearly two days since Hurricane Laura had knocked out electricity in their unit, according to two of the detainees.
The guards let them out into the yard, and power was restored that night. But advocates accuse many immigration detention centers in Louisiana of continued mistreatment during and after Hurricane Laura, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast on Thursday and killed at least 18 people in the region.
The two detainees who spoke to The Associated Press also said they were held in the same cramped dormitory as people with COVID-19 symptoms who later tested positive. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from immigration authorities.
Louisiana has quietly become a hub for immigration detention during the Trump administration, holding thousands of asylum seekers who have been denied bond by immigration authorities as well as others seeking to remain in the United States or awaiting deportation. At least eight new jails have opened in recent years, including some former prisons converted into immigration detention.
The Jackson Parish Sheriff's Office confirmed on its Facebook page that there was a Saturday protest at the Jackson Parish Correctional Center, a 1,200-bed immigration jail in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The sheriff’s office said detainees on Saturday "were upset about having no electricity and running water" and "damaged their dormitory in protest."
"The protest was squashed and activity is back to normal," the sheriff's office said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox said authorities moved detainees from two facilities in southern Louisiana to the northern part of the state before the hurricane made landfall, though he did not identify the jails. Cox said the agency’s "planning and preparation" prevented any "extended absence of power or water" at immigration jails.
Scott Sutterfield, an executive at LaSalle Corrections, which operates the Jackson Parish facility, did not respond to requests for comment. LaSalle has been accused of mishandling the coronavirus and not following ICE regulations elsewhere in Louisiana.
The power went out at the Jackson Parish jail Thursday night, according to the two detainees. A dorm of about 60 people had a single fan that recirculated hot, humid air, they said.
The next day, the toilets started to overflow and pushed waste-filled water across the dormitory, they said. One of the detainees, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, said he and others mopped the waste without gloves. The smell of waste persisted.
On Friday night, many of the men were allowed to sleep in the yard because the air inside the dormitory was so stifling. But they were confined to the housing unit again Saturday and began to protest when they felt guards were ignoring the conditions inside, he said.
The power came back that night, restoring air conditioning. Guards are bringing the detainees food and bottled water, the Cameroonian man said.
But they have new concerns about the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly through many immigration detention facilities, with more than 5,300 cases and six deaths nationwide.
According to both detainees, about 10 men were tested last week for the virus after showing symptoms and brought back to their housing unit instead of being isolated. Then, on Saturday night, the people were pulled out of the unit when they tested positive.
On Monday, according to the second man who spoke to AP, detainees were starting to feel sick but were being denied tests altogether.
Luz Lopez, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement that ICE and private prison companies "deny basic human dignity.”
"They remain unaccountable to Congress and avert justice by any means necessary, even amid natural disasters," she said. "We demand answers to the unspeakable conditions in the Louisiana ICE prisons."