Report comes as 32 detained immigrants test positive for COVID-19 and two guards have died at Richwood Correctional Center

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and National Immigrant Justice Center released a first-of-its-kind report today on immigration detention under the Trump administration: “Justice-Free Zones: U.S. Immigration Detention Under the Trump Administration.” The report combines quantitative and qualitative data from visits to five detention centers including three in Louisiana: Winn Correctional Center, Jackson Parish Correctional Center, and Richwood Correctional Center. At Richwood, at least 32 detained immigrants have tested positive for COVID-19 and two guards have died.

“The humanitarian disaster unfolding at places like Richwood is the tragic result of the Trump administration’s callous disregard for the well-being of people in its custody, which we saw first-hand at our visits to these facilities,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. “With many of these facilities now becoming deadly tinderboxes for COVID-19, what was already a humanitarian crisis is now an imminent threat to public health.” 

“From the lack of basic medical care and sanitation supplies to violent and abusive treatment from guards, the inhumane conditions we witnessed in Louisiana detention facilities were inexcusable even before this current crisis hit,” said Bruce Hamilton, ACLU of Louisiana staff attorney, who participated in several of the site visits. “Releasing people from these death-trap conditions is vital to protecting human life and combating the spread of COVID-19.” 

The report examines how the immigrant detention system has grown since 2017, the poor conditions and inadequate medical care — even before the COVID-19 outbreak — and the due process hurdles faced by immigrants held in these remote locations. 

Among the findings from the report: Since 2017, 40 new detention facilities have opened in the U.S. Most are run by private operators. People are held in conditions that are inhumane, and access to medical care is paltry — even before the pandemic.

At Winn Correctional Center:

  • The only doctor, Dr. Marc Singleton, was placed on probation from the Board of Medical Examiners. 
  • Only half the positions for registered nurses were filled, and there were no mental health providers at all. 
  • The “emergency room” at the facility held only a stretcher with no basic medical equipment. 
  • Immigrants reported difficulty receiving care, delays in receiving prescribed medication – with one man even being denied an inhaler. 

At Richwood, where at least 32 detained immigrants have now tested positive for COVID-19, concerns about medical care and poor sanitation were common: 

  • People in custody at Richwood commonly complained of requesting medical care and, even when their need was urgent, waiting days to see a doctor or nurse.
  • People told us that their units were too cold and had poor ventilation,  water sometimes rained from the ceiling, and that the drinking water was yellow and gritty. 
  • A month before our 2019 visit to visit Richwood, a Cuban asylum seeker named Roylan Hernandez Diaz died after attempting suicide in solitary confinement, reportedly after participating in a hunger strike.  

At Jackson Parish Correctional Center: 

  • The medical facilities are limited and at the time of our visit, only two medical staff were on site, including one registered nurse and one LPN. 
  • No medical staff capable of prescribing medication was present.
  • Multiple people interviewed by researchers reported no access to soap for bathing or cleaning supplies for their cells or bathrooms.

Asylum seekers interviewed for this report also shared dramatic stories of the lengths immigration officers went to obfuscate avenues of release available, including denying the existence of parole or claiming that it was available only for people who are dying.

“ICE is not known for its transparency during 'normal' circumstances, but the limited access we had for this report — to detention facilities, to detained people — no longer exists,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Even before this crisis, detained people were unable to receive basic care and were held in a culture of fear, without any clear way to get out of detention. In a global pandemic, these conditions — overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lack of access to medical care, staff who speak only English — become especially deadly. This is not the kind of country we want to be.”

On March 31, 2020 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the ACLU of Louisiana filed an emergency motion seeking the immediate review of parole requests from asylum seekers who remain under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) amid the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention centers. 

The filing was part of their lawsuit against the Trump administration for categorically denying release to hundreds of people who are languishing in immigration prisons after lawfully seeking asylum in the United States. In September 2019, the U.S. District Court of Columbia granted a preliminary injunction requiring DHS and the ICE New Orleans Field Office to immediately restore the procedures of parole and access to parole, as mandated by DHS’ own 2009 Parole Directive and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.