In the last six months Louisiana has played an increasingly key role in federal efforts to detain a growing number of undocumented immigrants.
Since September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has nearly doubled its detention capacity in Louisiana by contracting with four additional correctional facilities in remote corners of the state and adding more than 2,500 beds for detainees.
This comes as Louisiana has experienced a steady decline in its prison population following a criminal justice overhaul in 2017 that reduced the state’s incarceration rate from a high of roughly 40,000 in 2012 to about 33,269 in 2018, according to state data.
“It seemed that Louisiana was ready to move away from its dependence on mass incarceration through its efforts at justice reinvestment,” said Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s disheartening to see that it continues to rely heavily on it through its switch to the mass incarceration of civil detainees.”
This year, ICE began using River Correctional Center (500 beds), Jackson Parish Correctional Center (1,000 beds) and Richwood Correctional Center (1,000 beds) to house detainees, said Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman.
Johnson said these efforts began in September after the agency contracted with Bossier Medium Security Facility in Bossier Parish to house up to 240 detainees.
ICE expands detention capacity
As ICE has seen its detention capacity stretched thin nationwide, the need for more beds has grown.
In March, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 103,492 people at the southwest border. That’s more than double the number from the year before and the highest rate in five years.
“The most recent surge has exceeded the agency’s reserve capacity and demanded the execution of new and expanded contracts,” Cox said in an email. “ICE continues to look for opportunities to efficiently increase detention capacity in order to meet operational responsibilities.”
He added that ICE considers many factors when selecting locations for detention facilities, the foremost being their “operational need for any given facility.”
Other factors the agency takes into account include proximity to ICE field offices, available infrastructure such as airports and ground transportation, as well as access to health care, legal services and federal immigration courts.
In addition, detaining immigrants in Louisiana comes at half the cost for ICE.
The average cost of ICE detention in Louisiana is approximately $65 per person per day at present, Cox said. The national adult average daily bed rate was $126.52 in FY 2019.
A portion of that goes to the sheriff’s department that operate the jails: The current amount the state pays sheriffs to house inmates ranges from $10.25 to $24.39, Mike Ranatza the executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune last month.
Housing detainees can be a significant source of cash for local authorities and municipalities. The Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office stands to make $64.07 per detainee per day, or up to $64,070 per day total, if ICE uses its full capacity of 1,000 beds at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, according to a contract signed in March.
The daily rate at LaSalle Detention Center in Jena is $75 for up to 416 detainees and $45 per day for 417 to 1,160 detainees. So, if the occupancy of the facility for a single day is 916 detainees, the LaSalle Economic Development District with the town of Jena nearby earns $53,700 daily, according to their contract with ICE.
Legal, medical concerns grow
The rapid expansion has raised concerns among immigration attorneys about medical conditions at the facilities and issues with legal access.
Most of these facilities are located in rural and remote corners of the state, several hours away from major metropolitan areas. LaSalle Detention Center in Jena is about a five-hour drive from New Orleans and nearly four hours away from Baton Rouge. That facility has been used for immigration detention for more than 10 years and houses up to 1,160 people at a time.
River Correctional Center, which started being used for ICE detention in January, is about a three-hour drive from New Orleans.
“When you open 2,500 new beds in the span of six months to a year there is no way for legal services to meet that demand,” said Jeremy Jong, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The legal organization opened a satellite office in Alexandria, Louisiana last fall in order to provide pro-bono legal representation to people detained in Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, a facility with a capacity of 1,094 beds, and LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, about an hour away.
The office has three staff attorneys and one legal coordinator.
“They can only cover a fraction of the population, and now you more than double the population. How can you possibly start to respond to that?” Jong said.
Access to appropriate medical care has also been a concern at these facilities in recent months. Mumps outbreaks have been reported at two ICE detention centers in Louisiana this year. At least 300 detainees who may have been exposed to the virus in late January and early February at Pine Prairie ICE Processing center near Alexandria had to be quarantined. ICE confirmed that 18 detainees had confirmed or probable mumps cases at that facility.
In order to reduce the risk of exposure, detainees with confirmed or probable cases were placed in groups separated from the rest of the population.
Similar measures were also put in place at the River Correctional Center around the same time in January to contain a mumps outbreak.
Two months later, at the end of March, ICE officials confirmed that 24 individuals in ICE custody had gone on hunger strike over limited legal access at River Correctional Center.
© 2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
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