Human Rights Watch sent this letter on December 10, 2015, to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to express conernes over detainees' due process rights, especially with regard to legal visitations.   

December 10, 2015

Sarah Saldana
Director
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement
500 12th St., SW
Washington, DC 20536

Dear Director Saldana,

I write to share our concerns regarding detainees’ access to legal visits at LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, as well as our concerns regarding other issues reported by detainees. Two Human Rights Watch attorneys, Clara Long and Grace Meng, who are researchers in our US Program, visited the detention center on November 2 and 3. What they witnessed and heard raises serious questions about the ability of detainees in LaSalle to assert their due process rights, particularly with regard to their right to legal visits. The allegations made by detainees regarding the conditions of their detention, including food, medical care, and the grievance system are contrary to a fair and humane civil immigration detention system.

Detainees’ Access to Legal Visits

Incidents Specific to Our Visit

Events during our visit raised serious concerns that the facility staff were trying to restrict individuals’ access to attorneys. On the first day, we met with Francisco Rico, a detainee who has filed several grievances against the facility. We also met with one of 14 men who had been on hunger strike at the facility the previous week. We were not able to meet with everyone that day, as the attorney visiting room had been reserved by another attorney for the afternoon, so we planned to return to visit more individuals the following day. That night, another man who had been on hunger strike called us to say that his commissary and phone account had been shut down, and he feared he was about to be deported.

Given the timing of the call, we were naturally concerned that immigration officials were retaliating against this individual for his participation in the hunger strike or that they and facility officials were trying to keep him from meeting with us. We contacted ICE deportation officer Matt Reaves, who referred us to Brian Cox, who referred us to Brian Acuna, AFOD in New Orleans. We strongly expressed our concern that this hunger striker might be facing retaliatory action.

The next day, we asked to meet with this individual and again with Francisco Rico, along with six other individuals. We had also sent a request by email the night before and we arrived around 8:30 am. We were told that the hunger striker had left the facility to be deported, and that Rico, along with three other individuals, was in court in the ICE building next door, which allows for teleconferencing. When we asked the facility staff when they would be available, staff would not provide a definitive answer. Although we were allowed to meet with one individual immediately, only after repeated calls to Mr. Acuna did we receive a clear response that these individuals would be allowed to meet with us.

When we did meet with Mr. Rico several hours later, he told us that he had not had a court hearing that day, nor had he seen a judge. Since then, Mr. Rico has not been allowed to make secure calls to us. Before we arrived at the facility, Mr. Rico told us that he had posted Clara Long’s contact information in the detention center for detainees who wanted to report concerns, and that in response to his actions, he had been placed in solitary confinement.

After our departure, Mr. Rico requested but was denied a secure attorney call to Ms. Long.

There may be legitimate reasons for the decision to deport the hunger striker, the transfer of Mr. Rico to the court building when he did not have a hearing that day, or the apparent decision to place Mr. Rico in disciplinary segregation, but these actions are troubling given that both had been vocal about problems they had in detention and both were individuals we interviewed, and subsequently requested to meet. We also heard allegations of other potentially retaliatory actions against detainees at LaSalle for taking steps to assert their rights, including placement in solitary confinement.

General Concerns

We also wanted to raise more general concerns about attorney access at LaSalle. The facility has one attorney visitation room. If an attorney is occupying the room with his or her client, any other attorneys wishing to meet with individuals must wait. As you may know, LaSalle Detention Center is located in rural, central Louisiana. There are few immigration attorneys practicing near LaSalle. The few attorneys who represent individuals in LaSalle, including the provider of the Legal Orientation Program, drive for several hours in order to visit their clients. Many attorneys are not willing to represent anyone detained at LaSalle because of the challenges of meeting and preparing with their clients, and those who do are often asked to wait for hours while other attorneys meet with their client in the one attorney visitation room.

During our visit on November 2, which commenced at 9 am, we were told an attorney had reserved the room for 1 pm, and we would have to finish our meetings by 1 pm. The next day, an attorney arrived, having driven six hours from Dallas, and was told she could not meet with her clients until one of our researchers was done with the attorney visiting room.

The attorney room is not private. Conversations in the attorney room can easily be heard from outside.

The attorney room does not allow for contact visits. There are two phones that attorneys must use to speak to detainees. While we were there, at first, only one phone worked. By the end of our visit, none of the phones worked. We had to speak loudly through the openings in the window, which further reduced the ability to have a private and confidential conversation.

We greatly appreciated Mr. Acuna’s prompt efforts to facilitate our attorney visits with several of the individuals we met. But we remain seriously concerned about the allegations of retaliatory action and the limited and non-private access to attorneys. We request immediate investigation into whether retaliatory action has been taken against detainees at LaSalle Detention Center. Please inform us as to whether you intend to investigate, and if so, the results of that investigation and the steps you plan to take to ensure such retaliatory action does not happen again. We also request a plan with specific steps ICE will take to expand capacity and confidentiality for legal visits.

General Detention Conditions

During our visit, we interviewed ten individuals referred to us by attorneys and immigrant advocacy organizations. These individuals reported experiencing a range of problems, including unsanitary conditions, inadequate access to clean water, inadequate medical care, inadequate outdoor recreational time, and retaliatory use of solitary confinement.

Several detainees reported an incident a few weeks before our visit, during which time the water smelled and tasted bad, and some detainees developed rashes after showering with the water. Initially, they were told the water was fine. When they were finally given bottled water, one detainee stated they were not given enough water per person.

Several people also alleged that they had received inadequate medical care, that preexisting conditions were not being addressed, or that they had witnessed other detainees suffering from lack of care. Some noted that sick call was often very early in the morning, and if they are too sick to get up, they cannot request and access medical care during that particular day.

Several reported abusive behavior by facility staff, including threats of bodily harm and racist and derogatory language. Some alleged they had been placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for asserting their rights.

Although we cannot verify the specifics of any of these claims, we are deeply concerned by these allegations. We believe these reports warrant further investigation, as they seriously undermine ICE’s goal to maintain a civil, non-punitive detention system.

We would appreciate a meeting to discuss these issues. Please feel free to contact Grace Meng with any questions at (310) 477-5540 or mengg@hrw.org.

Sincerely,

Alison Parker
US Program, Director

Cc:      Brian Acuna, AFOD, New Orleans
Kevin Landy, Assistant Director of Office of Detention Policy and Planning, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, Deputy Assistant Director for Custody Management, Custody Programs Division, Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Megan Mack, Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties