03 Aug 7/31/09 Associated Press – Immigration detention conditions poor, hunger strikers sayJuly
July 31, 2009
Immigration detention conditions poor, hunger strikers say
by John Moreno Gonzales, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Some detainees at a Louisiana immigration detention center have begun three-day hunger strikes to protest poor conditions there, immigrant advocates said.
The news comes just days after Department of Homeland Security officials dismissed a report critical of conditions at its immigration holding centers nationwide.
About 100 detainees contributed to a report released Thursday by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, claiming bleak conditions at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lockup in Basile, La., 183 miles northwest of New Orleans.
“It’s not fit for a human being,” read a comment attributed to Fausto Gonzalez, according to the report a detainee from the Dominican Republic.
“There are rats, mosquitoes, flies, and spiders inside the cell and inside the dorm. The ventilation is terrible,” he said. “We have tried to complain about all of these problems, and we haven’t gotten anywhere. They tell us, ‘It’s a jail. This is how it is.'”
Dora Schriro, special adviser on detention and removal for Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, did not return requests for comment Thursday.
Philip Miller, ICE’s acting field office director in New Orleans, who oversees five Southern states, said the facility was cleaned daily and that he had talked with staff about addressing detainee concerns.
“We acknowledge and accept the fact that immigration detention is not punitive in nature,” he said. “And we have to take a high degree of caution and a high degree of sensitivity in how we maintain our facility.”
The Associated Press has requested access to the 1,002-bed complex which is run through private contracts with several law enforcement bodies, including ICE. Dick Harbison, executive vice president of contractor LCS Corrections Services Inc., has agreed to the tour and ICE officials are considering it.
Access to immigration detainees is generally limited to family and legal representatives, which staff attorneys at the New Orleans group have become for those quoted in its report. Detainees at Basil are being held on federal charges of staying in the country without authorization, but in some cases local charges as well.
Gonzalez is among 60 detainees who have undertaken rotating 72-hour hunger strikes over the last month to protest conditions, said Saket Soni, executive director of the Workers’ Center. They would strike for longer periods, Soni said, but the detainees feared inadequate medical care and placement of strikers in solitary confinement could lead to serious illnesses.
The conditions outlined in the report are similar to those highlighted in the report released Tuesday by the National Immigration Law Center. Homeland Security officials dismissed that report as being outdated because it used data and detainee accounts no fresher than 2005. The grievances in the latest report are no older than two weeks.
Among the report’s claims:
— A detainee said guards humiliated him and other men by issuing them women’s nylon underwear.
— A Jewish man said when he requested kosher food, guards said they didn’t know what it was and he was given unsealed food that made him throw up.
— One detainee said he has not had phone contact with his family or lawyer for a month because phone cards that they are required to buy take a week to be issued and then do not work in most holding cells.
— For about three weeks in May, the jail ran out of soap and toothpaste, said a detainee.
— A hunger striker said air conditioning was turned down in his room after he began his protest and he was eventually placed in solitary confinement and pressured to eat.
“Ninety-five percent of it’s untrue,” said Harbison. “Occasionally, an inmate tells you a lie.”
Harbison said records showed only two inmates had failed to report to the mess hall during the period in which the hunger strikes were to have taken place. Striking detainees reported to the mess so they would not face retaliation, said Soni, but left their trays full.
According to government data, more than 32,000 foreigners are held in the U.S. each day on suspected immigration violations. The budget for jailing them, often under private contracts, has nearly doubled to $1.7 billion over the last four years, according to ICE.