Jailed Asylum Seekers Report Unlivable Conditions in Wake of Hurricane Laura

New Orleans, Louisiana—Incarcerated immigrants and their families and advocates have reported dangerous, unlivable conditions and haphazard evacuations at remote immigration jails in Louisiana, where Hurricane Laura caused widespread damage and power outages as it rampaged across the state late last week.

Speaking to Truthout over the phone on Monday, an asylum seeker jailed at the Jackson Parish Correctional Center in northwestern Louisiana said her dormitory was on “lockdown” after one woman developed a high fever and symptoms of COVID-19. The asylum seeker, who asked to remain anonymous due to an ongoing immigration case, said people in the jail were living in fear of the coronavirus and had been without running water since the storm hit. She said immigration prisoners were using toilets filled with feces and urine and have been unable to take showers or access clean clothing.

“She was in the dorm for a very long time before they came and took her out later,” the asylum seeker said of the woman who fell ill with a high fever. “A dorm where there is poop and there is urine and we can’t [take a shower].”

The asylum seeker said people held in the jail were desperate for nutritious food and drinking water.

“The food they give us is very small.… It’s not enough [drinking] water, we need more water,” she said, adding that the dormitory is hot and humid without air conditioning and smells of human waste.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has sued the Trump administration over policies that allow for the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and inhumane conditions within immigration jails across Louisiana and the Southeast, says at least five Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails in Louisiana were located within Hurricane Laura’s path. On Monday, the group said ICE failed to publicly share emergency plans for keeping the hundreds of immigrants in its custody safe during the storm. Family members reported to the SPLC that immigration prisoners were “haphazardly evacuated” from the Allen Parish Correction Center in southern Louisiana without proper social distancing, potentially exposing them and prisoners at the facility where they were transferred to COVID-19.

“The devastation left in the wake of the storm, including widespread power outages, compounds existing crises of ICE detention in rural Louisiana: unsafe and dilapidated facilities, inaccessible hospitals and emergency care, and limited access to legal counsel and communication with the outside world,” said Luz Lopez, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, in a statement. “On top of that, we’ve fielded reports of careless evacuation processes, exposing potentially hundreds more to a deadly virus that ICE has failed to contain in their facilities.”

On Saturday, immigrants and asylum seekers caged in a men’s dorm staged a protest to call attention to the conditions at the Jackson Parish jail, where the asylum seeker Truthout spoke with is incarcerated. The jail is a privately run facility that enjoys a lucrative contract with ICE to detain migrants, flooding local jails in Louisiana amid the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. A video apparently taken by an observer outside the jail and circulated among family members and activists shows dozens of people gathering in the jail yard after walking out of a dormitory.

In a statement on Facebook on Saturday, the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Department said the incarcerated migrants “damaged their dormitory” and the protest was “squashed” by authorities. The department said that water has been restored to the facility, a statement that appears to contradict reports from the inside. The nearby town of Jonesboro, the department said, was running its water system on generators over the weekend and having trouble keeping water flowing. The sheriff’s department said on Sunday that utility workers were able to restore power to the jail during the protest, but that this step was unrelated to the walkout staged by the immigrants. Power outages in some local areas remained on Monday and schools were not expected to open by Tuesday or Wednesday, according to an additional statement.

Advocates say those incarcerated in the Jackson Parish jail are constantly worried about catching the coronavirus. According to ICE’s official count, at least 5,300 COVID-19 cases have been recorded in immigration jails across the country, including hundreds in jails run by ICE, local sheriff’s departments and private contractors in Louisiana. At least 17 people have died in ICE jails from COVID-19 and other causes so far this year, more than twice the number who died in custody last year.

Lara Nochomovitz, a defense attorney representing immigration defendants jailed in Louisiana, said a number of her clients have reported living without clean water and other unlivable conditions at Jackson Parish Correctional Center and other facilities across storm-battered Louisiana.

“I understand there was a hurricane, but that hurricane was coming and you should have people working on it 24 hours a day to clean it up, and you should be moving people [or] better yet, just release them,” Nochomovitz said in an interview.

Protests and hunger strikes have swept through ICE jails in Louisiana and beyond during the pandemic, and in some cases guards have deployed pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters and placed them in solitary confinement, according to immigrants’ rights activists with contacts inside the jails. Cameroonian asylum seekers at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in central Louisiana have reportedly staged protests for weeks, activists in Louisiana say, and on August 14 local police broke up a demonstration outside the jail with pepper spray after clashing with protesters who traveled from New Orleans.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver and author of Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, told Truthout in an interview that the reports from Louisiana are not surprising based on ICE’s negligent response to COVID-19 and the damage caused to immigration prisons during earlier storms that hit the Gulf Coast.

“We’ve been living in a public health emergency in which ICE has been both incapable and frankly unwilling to reduce the threat that exists, not only to the migrants it detains, but to its guards and its staff and to the communities in which these facilities [are located] for quite some time now,” García Hernández said. “Jails and prisons are exactly the recipe for how you don’t want people living during a pandemic, but ICE continues to operate largely under a business-as-usual mode, and it’s not surprising that a hurricane would only worsen that situation.”

García Hernández said the dangerous conditions in ICE jails are exacerbated by the sheer number of people incarcerated under Trump administration policies that have resulted in the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border being locked up for indefinite amounts of time. Before President Trump took office, asylum seekers were often allowed to live with family and sponsors in their communities while their asylum claims wound through the courts. Now thousands are bounced between remote jails and prisons across the country, potentially spreading the coronavirus along the way. Activists have demanded their release since the pandemic began.

“It’s disheartening to see that there are so many of these facilities that are housing hundreds and sometimes even thousands of ICE’s detainees, and so when you take a bad situation and throw a hurricane into the mix, that expectation should be that you are only going to increase the human suffering,” García Hernández said.

The asylum seeker at the Jackson Parish jail said the electricity went out when the storm hit and the floor of the dormitory became dangerously wet. People were terrified and injured themselves slipping around in the dark.

“It was like the hurricane came into the dorm itself … water was coming up from the ground,” she said.

An ICE spokesperson did not respond to an emailed request for comment by the time this story was published.