8/1/09 New America Media – Immigrant Detainees Stage Hunger Strikes in LouisianaAugust

August 1, 2009
Immigrant Detainees Stage Hunger Strike in Louisiana
by Marcelo Ballvé, New America Media

Some 100 immigrant detainees at a private prison in Louisiana, angered by what they say are awful conditions, are engaged in increasingly tense protests. 
Beginning in early July, they’ve staged waves of three-day hunger strikes and provided statements to immigrant advocates to gain attention for their complaints. Prison authorities, meanwhile, have been reacting by placing hunger strikers in isolation for days at a time, advocates say. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency in charge of immigrant detention, has said the solitary confinement isn’t disciplinary, but precautionary “medical isolation.” 

At least six inmates remain in solitary confinement as a result of the last hunger strike, which began July 27, according to Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. 

He spoke to New America Media via cell phone Saturday afternoon. 

Soni was on his way to visit the prison, the Southern Louisiana Correctional Center, a 1,000-bed facility set near rice fields in the town of Basile, a four-hour drive west of New Orleans. 

The detainees “are facing a severe sense of isolation and desperation,” he said. 

In a report compiled by Soni and other advocates and published on the center’s Web site July 30, the detainees complain of lack of responsible medical attention, even for serious ailments like leukemia, high blood pressure, and asthma. 

They also report unreliable, and in some cases nonexistent, phone contact with lawyers and family, a vacuum of information about their deportation cases, and scarcity of soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, and even underwear. 

One detainee reports “rats, mosquitoes, flies, and spiders inside the cell,” one of several shared by scores of immigrant detainees. A Jewish detainee, Manuchar Khalhaturov, said he was denied a kosher diet, while another said the detention center’s food routinely made him sick. 

These conditions would put the facility in violation of several standards issued by the Department of Homeland Security for immigrant detainees, according to Soni.

But federal officials responsible for the detainees flatly deny they have been subjected to any mistreatment. 

Philip Miller, acting field office director in New Orleans for ICE, said he visited the Basile facility on July 16 and found its maintenance and pest control program satisfactory. 

Miller denies the claim contained in the July 30 report that there was no soap or toothpaste for three weeks in May. “That’s not true,” he said, since inmates receive toiletries upon request. 

To date, there have been five three-day hunger strikes to protest conditions at the Basile detention center, and they’ve involved some 60 detainees, said Soni. 

Prison staff reportedly sought to quell these protests by isolating hunger strikers, sometimes even before they began refusing food, according to statements from men who participated in earlier strikes.

In the report, Joaquin López said that on the morning of July 23, he and four other immigrant detainees in a cell called Wolf 3 were put into the “hole” for planning a hunger strike. 

The next day, López said, they were brought out of the “hole,” cuffed at the ankles and wrists, and interrogated for two hours, then placed in solitary confinement again, in cells measuring 12 by six feet. 

He was brought out of the isolation cell to speak with advocates on July 25. 

Another detainee, Fausto Gonzalez, who has asthma, said that on July 28, more than 30 people in his cell, Tiger 2, refused food and voiced their complaints. Guards showed up in black riot uniforms, said Gonzalez, and two men were sent to the “hole.”

Soni said he doesn’t know how long the men mentioned in the July 30 report remained in solitary, since the limited contact doesn’t allow him to track them. 

“Solitary confinement as retaliatory punishment for peaceful protest of conditions is unacceptable,” said the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights in a statement. 

ICE denies that hunger strikers receive solitary confinement, or are unduly pressured.

Federal detention standards require that a hunger striker be placed in “medical isolation in order to closely monitor the detainee and meet his medical needs,” said Miller, the ICE field officer for detention and removal. 

He added that hunger strikers undergo a medical review and counseling about the health risks they face. 

Seven national advocacy groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, sent Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano a letter demanding that she investigate the Basile, Louisiana prison and the detainees’ grievances. 

Last month, Napolitano denied a court petition asking for bolstered, legally enforceable detention standards at the nation’s facilities housing immigrant detainees. Instead, DHS opted to stick with “performance-based” standards enforced by private contractors.


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