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Formerly Detained Immigrants Claim 'Abusive, Inhumane, Criminal and Racially Discriminatory Practices' at Two Louisiana ICE Detention Centers

A satellite image of Pine Prairie Ice Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.
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A satellite image of Pine Prairie Ice Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.

Black immigrants who were formerly held in two detention centers in Louisiana are calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to end contracts with the facilities.

Last week the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of four men, all asylum seekers from African countries including Cameroon. The men alleged that they experienced and witnessed “abusive, inhumane [and] criminal” treatment at Allen Parish Public Safety Complex and at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Evangeline Parish and complained of “racially discriminatory practices.”

The complaint claims that staff and officials from both facilities “denied Black immigrants basic human necessities, including potable water and necessary medical treatment; physically abused detained persons … threatened lethal force against Black immigrants in ICE custody; threatened Black immigrants with punitive solitary confinement in retaliation for peacefully expressing their rights and for their support of the Black Lives Matter movement; and ignored written grievances related to racial tensions between detention officials and detained immigrants.”

Punitive Solitary Confinement

The complaint also alleged that Black immigrants who engaged in protests were retaliated against through solitary confinement and transfers.

While held at Pine Prairie, Divine Tikum Kem and Benson Njuguna organized roughly 45 mostly Cameroonian detainees to go on two hunger strikes. The men were protesting, among other grievances, their inability to be released on parole.

Southern Poverty Law Center analysis of government data on paroles found that Cameroonian asylum seekers are 2.5 times more likely to be denied discretionary release in the New Orleans ICE Field Office region, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.

Several Cameroonian asylum seekers now released on parole had been held in ICE detention in Louisiana and Mississippi for more than a year.

“The reasoning is obvious to black migrants in this region and to advocates,” Rose Murray, lead attorney on the Southern Poverty Law Center complaint, “ it's racism, its anti-Blackness.”

According to the complaint, the men aligned themselves with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and were placed in solitary confinement.

“Several reported that they were not given water and were forced to drink out of the toilet.” the complaint said.

Njuguna was subjected to solitary confinement three times — twice in response to protests that he and Kem organized and a third time for medical treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said segregation negatively impacted his mental health.

“When you’re taken to solitary confinement, your entire life flashes before you but the flash is so slow it’s literally a slow motion video,” he said. “You can feel your pores open and close because of how much it opens up your emotions, your feelings, your fears. … I would just get scared for no reason. Any time I heard some banging on the door and something in me would just go wrong.”

A June 2021 complaint submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization outlined a pattern of “punitive solitary confinement as [a] response to COVID-19 and other public health crises” at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center.

“Based on interviews with currently detained individuals and others previously subjected to solitary confinement, those placed in both disciplinary and administrative segregation units face identical, severely punitive conditions such as: little to no recreational or social time; no amenities; limited access to hygiene; limited access to potable water; limited access to tablets or grievance forms; limited access to the law library; and limited legal call access,” the complaint said. “At Pine Prairie, disciplinary segregation is not only deployed under serious or exceptional circumstances – it is misused to maintain day-to-day order and to contain public health crises that require comprehensive medical and mental health services.”

An accompanying report analyzed data from 2013 through 2017 and noted that while African and Caribbean immigrants account for 4 percent of people in ICE detention, they make up 24 percent of all people subjected to solitary confinement.

“Black immigrants are six times more likely to be sent to solitary confinement than others in ICE detention and are significantly more likely to be targeted for deportation,” the report read.

Njuguna alleged differential treatment from guards towards Black and African detainees and immigrants who identified as non-Black.

“We used to make a joke and say, as a black person, you can go to [solitary] confinement only for sneezing the wrong way,” Njuguna said. “A Black person and another person will get into an argument, and the black person will end up in segregation, while the other one proceeds on with their life.”

He recalled an incident in which a man from Cuba threatened the warden at Pine Prairie with violence and received no punishment.

“A few days later they took one Cameroonian to lockdown simply because he [said to] an officer, ‘I asked you for soap to go take a shower,’” Njuguna said.

A media representative from the Geo Group referred us to a previously issued statement associated with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization’s complaint.

“We strongly reject these allegations that are advanced by radical special interest groups with a politically-motivated agenda,” the statement said. “For more than three decades, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, we have been a trusted service provider to the federal government, providing consistent, high-quality services at all our facilities. … Under no circumstances is assignment in a special management unit used in a retaliatory manner or without careful adherence to ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.”

Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization’s complaints claim that Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center has violated ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

Transfers as Retaliation, Treatment at Allen Parish v. Pine Prairie

Njuguna and Ken were later transferred to the Allen Parish facility, which is operated by the local sheriff’s department. Other detainees involved in the hunger strikes were transferred elsewhere in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A June 2021 report from the American Civil Liberties Union noted that ICE engaged in retaliatory deportations and transfers of hunger strikers despite clear medical risks.

The SPLC complaint alleges that Njuguna and Kem’s transfer was a punitive measure, as conditions were more severe at Allen.

“It felt like coming from a frying pan into the fire,” Njuguna said in an interview. “I'm pretty much sure the reason why we were taken to Allen Parish was to punish us, to [say] “You guys were in a holiday camp. Now Welcome to detention.”

Njuguna compared conditions at Allen Parish with Pine Prairie.

“Allen was a place where you were confined in your dorm. And the only time you would go out was when you're going to a caged yard for an hour,” he said. “Everything was served in the dorm. At Least at Pine, we used to take a walk from the dorm all the way to the dining hall. At least you get to do some exercise. At Pine you would go to the yard sometimes twice a day if they had enough officers.”

Calls to a media representative at Allen Parish Sheriff’s Department went unanswered. Messages went unreturned.

Alleged Threats of Lethal Force at Allen Parish Public Safety Complex

Beyond these differences, Njuguna and Kem said they were threatened with lethal force while at Allen Parish.

“A person known as ‘Warden’ Chavez came to tell the two men that they had been moved from the other facility because they were troublemakers. Mr. Kem asked, ‘In what way? Just standing for our rights? How does that mean that we are troublemakers?’ Mr. Chavez responded with, ‘don’t try it here, because I have my gun,’” the statement reads.

According to the complaint, Chavez threatened Kem and Njuguna several times. Njuguna recalled a medical visit in which Chavez insisted on sitting in on. Njuguna requested to be sent back to his dorm instead of having Chavez present during his medical visit. Before returning to his dorm, Njuguna said Chavez told him, “next time you talk back at me, I’m going to take you to lockdown.”

While at Allen Parish, Kem and Njuguna said they witnessed Chavez slap a handcuffed detainee in the face. They also claim Chavez directed officers to pile on top of and physically restrain a man who was having a mental health breakdown.

Detainees Say They Were Denied Medical Treatment

According to the complaint, a man identified as “Johnny” was denied treatment for his liver disease while at Pine Prairie, a for-profit detention center owned by private prison company Geo Group.

The report said that Johnny was diagnosed while at the detention center, but the facility’s doctor told him that he was in the early stages of the disease and did not require treatment. Months later, Johnny was given a telehealth appointment with an independent doctor who works with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who in a declaration opposed the Pine Prairie doctor’s plan of no treatment. Johnny was still denied treatment, until he was transferred to another detention center, where he was told that his disease was in an advanced stage and that he had long needed treatment. He was also diagnosed with left ventricular hypertrophy that required immediate high blood pressure medicine. A doctor at the other facility said that his high blood pressure was a result of the long-untreated liver disease.

Similarly at Allen Parish, an independent doctor, Kate Sugarman M.D., found that another complainant, Ivo Ngong, had hypertension that went undiagnosed for a year and a half. It was treated as high blood pressure.

“Mr. Ivo Ngong should have been released from Allen Parish Public Safety Complex long ago in order to receive urgent evaluation and management for uncontrolled hypertension and to prevent any further physiological damage… ICE failed to diagnose Mr. Ngong’s hypertension, and therefore, to provide any of this treatment.”

Immigrants Say They Were Denied Potable Water and Given Inedible Food

Other grievances in the complaint address the food that detainees were served at both facilities.

Johny claimed Pine Prairie served “moldy and rotten food as well as expired milks.”

Ngong said that while quarantined in solitary confinement at Allen Parish, after a transfer, he was denied water and only provided beverages that were high in sugar.

The statement from Geo Group said that Pine Prairie “provides high-quality services, including round-the-clock access to medical care, a legal orientation program and free telephone calls to attorneys, three meals daily based on nutritional menus approved by a registered dietician, clean water, personal hygiene products, personal protective equipment, and recreational amenities.”

The Right Timing

Murray, the lead attorney on the complaint, said the men chose to voice their grievances now that they have been released from detention and the chances of them being retaliated against are lower.

“While they were still in ICE’s physical custody they did not feel safe coming forward with these allegations,” she said. “Retaliation in these places is real. And it's brutal and horrific. And they could have been retaliated against very seriously.”

She added that by speaking out against ICE, the complainants are risking being returned to detention.

“Anyone who steps out like this is basically at risk of being disappeared by ICE again, back into the detention centers,” she said.

Njuguna said that his hope is that ICE will cancel its contracts with the Pine Prairie and Allen Parish facilities.

During his campaign and as recently as June, President Biden has expressed a desire to close for-profit detention centers like Pine Prairie.

He believes that the change in administration could work in the favor of immigrants held in detention within the New Orleans ICE Field Office region. Since his campaign

“Now that there is some goodwill being shown by the current administration, I decided to contribute to this [complaint] so that the administration understands what they are a part of, what they are enabling, what they are financing [and] what kind of atrocities the system is a part of,” he said.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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