This story is courtesy of The Advocate.
A new phased renovation project that aims to improve the housing conditions for asylum seekers inside the Winn Correctional Center was approved by the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, the federal agency confirmed to The Advocate last week.
The announcement came after months of mounting pressure by pro-migrant groups and at least two warning letters by government investigators in August and November denouncing the condition of the facility.
“When renovations are complete, each tier will have four showers, sinks, and toilets with a maximum housing allowance of 48 residents per tier,” an ICE spokesperson said. “The renovations are part of facility improvements needed to maintain the standard of care ICE ensures with its national detention standards and independent inspections.”
The Winn ICE Correctional Center, located in Winnfield, is one of the 14 detention facilities under the New Orleans ICE Field Office and has been the subject of disturbing reports of abuse against immigrants.
A project completion timeline is still subject to staffing and supply chain issues, the spokesperson said. But renovations are anticipated to be completed by early summer. “ICE engages with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties findings and will continue working to address areas of concern,” the spokesperson added.
Construction work began nearly three weeks ago, according to multiple sources. The project is run by a Louisiana-based construction company called BAS Construction. BAS is operating under the supervision of LaSalle Corrections, the private prison provider that runs the facility, an ICE spokesperson confirmed.
In November, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties delivered a warning to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after a report that documented the presence of mold and pests and other issues at the detention facility in Winnfield.
The CRCL told ICE officials to stop sending immigrants to the Winnfield facility until conditions improved. The letter echoed the reports of abuse, isolation, filth, overcrowded dorms and lack of medical care reported by The Advocate in November.
Immigration lawyers, advocates, and asylum seekers have spoken out against the quality of the water in the facility and the use of an isolation room called by migrants as “cyper room” or “el pozo” meaning the hole.
At least 10 asylum seekers said they would boil cups of water in a microwave, then take them out and cool them off before they felt the water was safe enough to drink because it was reportedly yellow.
Local and national pro-migrant advocacy groups, which in December sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security describing the detention facilities in Louisiana as “unfit to house human beings,” were skeptical about the renovation project.
“You can’t renovate an ongoing record of human rights abuses. The civil rights division itself recommended to DHS leadership that nobody should currently be detained at Winn due to these dangerous conditions and the routine use of force and solitary confinement, among other abuses,” said Sofia Casini, Director of Visitation Advocacy Strategies at Freedom for Immigrants.
“There’s no amount of window dressing that could address this pervasive culture of abuse and discrimination. The long-standing pattern of fatal negligence at Winn underscores the urgent need to permanently close this prison. Everyone currently detained at Winn should be immediately released to the safety of their families, communities, or sponsor homes here in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, deportations contnue at Winn despite the construction work. Wrapped-up beds and a sudden increase in inmate movement in and around the facility are among the last things witnessed by immigrants such as Javier Garcia, an asylum seeker from Nicaragua, who was deported Thursday after being denied parole twice.
Kalen Fraser, who was Garcia’s sponsor, couldn’t believe it when Garcia called to tell her he was being deported. “In December, after we submitted the first parole petition, they called him out to sign paperwork in English,” Fraser said in a text message. “The bilingual officer that was having him sign it told him, in Spanish, they were papers for his parole. He thought he was going to be released.”
On Wednesday morning, Fraser received a denial letter to a second parole petition stating that Garcia had not established his identity to the satisfaction of ICE. “They claimed that Garcia had received a written copy of the first denial. It’s false,” Fraser said.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and arbitrary. Each deportation officer has an immense amount of discretionary power. Depending on their personal opinions, you can be deported while another asylum seeker with an essentially identical situation presented to a different deportation officer will be granted parole.”