Tucked away in the dense forest of rural Louisiana is a barbed wire-ringed prison that has quickly become a major detention centre for immigrants detained at the border.
The Winn Correctional Center is one of eight Louisiana jails that have started holding asylum seekers and other migrants over the past year, making Louisiana an unlikely epicenter for immigrant detention under President Donald Trump. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it’s now detaining about 8,000 migrants in Louisiana out of 51,000 nationally.
These new facilities, a mix of old state prisons and local jails, are a drive of several hours from New Orleans and other major cities, far from where most immigrant rights’ groups and immigration lawyers are based. Migrants complain of mistreatment and prolonged detention.
“I knew they would detain us, but I never thought it would be for this long,” said Howard Antonio Benavides Jr., an 18-year-old from Venezuela who has been at Winn for three months.
The surge has been welcomed by rural communities that have long relied on jails for jobs, and by the private prison company that gets paid by the federal government to detain the immigrants.
The shift has occurred against the backdrop of a criminal justice overhaul in Louisiana that has reduced the prison population, causing an economic threat for small towns with detention facilities.
ICE has stepped into that void. At Winn, which started detaining migrants in May, employee salaries have risen from $10 an hour to $18.50. Local officials have signed a new five-year contract that guarantees millions in payments to the local government and the state.
ICE refused several requests to comment on why it focused on Louisiana. In a statement, the agency said it identifies “contracts that can be modified to accommodate increased agency needs.”