Screenshot from a "video visitation" interview conducted by Debbie Nathan for The Intercept, showing women detained at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center and warning of possible viral spread among detainees.

Parish jails and private prisons in Louisiana were holding 7,000 prisoners or “detainees” for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as of February, out of a current nationwide total of approximately 34,000.

Some 20,000 of those have not been convicted of any crimes. Those with convictions may have committed only nonviolent crimes or even misdemeanors. But none are serving sentences; if they were U.S. citizens, they would not be locked up.

Last year, Fox News called Louisiana the “new go-to spot” for ICE detainees. Winn Parish alone expected $35 million to $40 million annually from its ICE contract.  

Is it still worth it?

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, calls are growing for the release of prisoners — including immigration detainees — in the interest of public safety. Medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security have called the nationwide ICE system “a frighteningly efficient mechanism for rapid spread of the virus to otherwise remote areas of the country where many detention centers are housed.”

In Louisiana, ICE has detention contracts in Basile, Ferriday, Jena, Jonesboro,  Natchitoches, Pine Prairie, Plain Dealing, Richwood, and Winfield.

As The Lens reported, five inmates have died of COVID-19 at the Oakdale federal prison complex, where officers and maintenance staff have begun blowing the whistle on Bureau of Prisons (BOP) misinformation about suspected cases. ICE operates an immigration court at Oakdale; immigration hearings at Oakdale are currently being held by video teleconference, a practice long criticized for its unfairness.

The Lens also reported this week that a Louisiana judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking the release of certain ICE detainees in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, wrote a letter urging all Louisiana district judges to “conduct a comprehensive and heightened risk-based assessment of all detainees,” in order to “safely minimize the number of people detained in jails” and prevent an outbreak which “would be potentially catastrophic for jail staff, the families of jail staff, and inmates.” The Chief Justice’s letter concerns detainees in the state’s criminal justice system; it leaves out ICE detainees housed in the very same jails.

As of April 8, ICE has acknowledged that 32 detainees and 74 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. One of the detainees is in Pine Prairie, another at LaSalle Correctional at Olla. Two of the infected employees are at ICE’s Alexandria staging facility.

But these numbers are virtually meaningless because they do not include employees of private companies contracted by ICE, and an ICE spokesperson told the Miami Herald that “it isn’t ICE’s role to publish or discuss information about a third-party.” Yet over 70 percent of ICE detainees are held in “third-party” private prisons; additional “third-party” contractors work in ICE’s own detention facilities.

This fits the agency’s long history of misinformation and of using private contractors as a further shield against accountability and transparency.  CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) has warned investors about the financial risk of public scrutiny.

Last week, in an extraordinary communication via “visitation video” with reporter Debbie Nathan, women imprisoned by ICE at its privately-run GEO South Louisiana processing center in Basile described the crowding and inadequate healthcare they are confronting. In Pine Prairie, ICE/GEO guards pepper-sprayed detainees expressing concern about the virus, according to Mother Jones.

Before the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Clark v. Martinez forced the release of hundreds of immigration detainees being held “indefinitely” by the federal government, Louisiana held a similarly central role in our nation’s immigration system. The numbers rose again with the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies. Now, as before, sheriffs and local officials are bringing in jobs and revenue from ICE as the state’s prison population has declined. 

During that earlier detention boom in the late 90s and early 2000s, as I was writing about detention, I spoke to detainees as well as immigration and prison officials across Louisiana. One of the biggest surprises of my research was that the most damning indictment of the immigration agency came not from the detainees but from local corrections professionals.

A correctional officer in Lake Charles who oversaw the jail’s immigration contract summed it up:

The immigration service, he said, “don’t really care about these people. They couldn’t care less.”

That couldn’t be truer today.

In October, a Cuban asylum-seeker, Roylan Hernandez Diaz, committed suicide under ICE “care” at the Richwood Correctional Center, operated by LaSalle, near Monroe. Hernandez had been placed in solitary confinement “even after medical staff had referred him for mental health treatment three times,” according to the AP. He hanged himself while guards outside his cell failed to check on him, as they were required to do.

These are the same custodians now entrusted with stopping the spread of COVID-19.

It has been almost three weeks since two-dozen New Orleans doctors joined with 3,000 medical professionals nationwide in writing, “We strongly recommend that ICE implement community-based alternatives to detention to alleviate the mass overcrowding in detention facilities. Individuals and families, particularly the most vulnerable — the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and those at higher risk of complications — should be released while their legal cases are being processed to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak.”

But the arrests and deportations continue. So do the lies. An ICE memo on the “Use of Ruses in Arrest Operations,” still in effect, provides guidance to agents on “enforcement actions requiring the use of a health or safety-based ruse,” calling these “a valuable and effective tool.”

ICE detainees can be released and monitored for the duration of their cases, for less money than it costs taxpayers to detain them. In the federal criminal justice system, Attorney General William Barr has instructed the Bureau of Prisons to transfer inmates to “home confinement” when appropriate.

But ICE detention is a regime apart, and President Trump has fulfilled his promise to erode ICE’s minimal accountability even further.

ICE leadership takes its own lead from the White House. And it is difficult to imagine any reason for the continued detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers in the current crisis, at the potential expense of our communities, save for one: that releasing them would damage the president’s chances of re-election.

Sheriffs, correctional officers, and residents throughout the state who may have benefitted from ICE contracts should quickly re-think those agreements, if not for the detainees’ sakes, then for their own.

Mark Dow is the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at