From March 2017, a protest near the ICE field office in New Orleans. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

At Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers nationwide, including in Louisiana, security is handled by guards employed by the facilities. But at the Catahoula Correctional Center, in Catahoula Parish, the local sheriff and his deputies have been intervening. Last month at Catahoula Correctional, several ICE detainees claim, the parish’s law enforcement officers fired pepper spray and projectiles at dozens of people, leaving many choking, bleeding and bruised.

In a recent federal lawsuit, unrelated to the May 3 incident, a detainee describes living conditions at Catahoula Correctional Center during the COVID-19 crisis.

Toney Edwards, the sheriff of Catahoula Parish, has acknowledged that he and his deputies were at the detention center when the detainees were fired on–but he denies that he and his men did the firing. Even so, he has not responded to open-records requests for body camera video from the incident. 

It happened on May 3, six detainees told The Lens by phone from the detention center. The facility is private, owned by Louisiana-based prison operator LaSalle Corrections, and last year began almost exclusively housing men detained by ICE. May 3 was a Sunday, and dozens of Central Americans from one dorm were staging what the detainees characterized as a peaceful protest. 

“We are very fearful of COVID-19,” said Alexander Salmeron, who is from Honduras. 

The men’s anxiety is well founded. By April 28 ICE was publicly reporting seven cases of COVID-19 at Catahoula Correctional Center. Since then the number has spiked almost nine-fold, to 60 cases—in a facility whose average daily detainee population is about 500

‘We held our Bibles up for protection’

By early May, many detainees had agreed to be flown back by ICE to their countries of origin. Many were desperate to leave Catahoula, particularly because of the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak. But their scheduled departure dates had come and gone and they were still in detention, with no explanation from the government for the delay. Other men were upset that several people with fevers had been moved into their dorm in late April. Normally, ICE officers make personal visits to deal with detainees’ concerns. But as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, the men said, the officers stopped coming to Catahoula. The detainees said they held the protest in part to demand that the ICE staffers make a visit. 

They also wanted help from God. In the yard where the protest was held, said the six participants interviewed by The Lens, several of the five dozen involved were on their knees praying. 

“Others were reading their Bibles,” a Guatemalan man said. Another man said that the rest of the protestors were standing quietly. “We wanted things to be very peaceful,” said another. “The guards told us to go back inside. We were scared but we stayed. But no one went to the fence. No one pushed.” 

Catahoula Parish Sheriff Toney Edwards.

Then, Guatemalan detainee Cesar Giovanny Marroquin Rivera said, people in management made a call. Contacted by phone a week later by The Lens,  Catahoula Parish Sheriff Edwards said he received a request for help from detention center staff and came to Catahoula Correctional with about five deputies. But Edwards said that he and his men did not go inside the facility or the yard. 

“We just went up there and set up an outside perimeter,” he said, beyond the fence surrounding the facility. He said he could not see what was happening in the yard because his view was blocked by a truck. 

Edwards said that if the detainees perceived that he and his men were inside the detention center, they must have been confused.

That’s not true, according to the six detainees. All said that they recognized Edwards and his deputies as sheriffs’ deputies because they drove up in vehicles marked “Sheriff.” The detainees said they saw the people who had been in those vehicles enter the detention-center yard. 

There, the detainees said, the sheriff and his men started yelling something in English. 

“It sounded like ‘One! Two! Three!” Marroquin Rivera said. “I speak and understand a little English,” said another Guatemalan detainee. “It sounded like they were saying, ‘I’m going to give three verbal warnings.’ Then, ‘Second verbal warning! Third verbal warning!’” 

“The scariest thing was that the sheriffs had real guns in holsters,” another detainee said. “They didn’t take out those weapons. But if they had, people could have been killed. We were so frightened when they came toward us that we held our Bibles up for protection.”

“You can wait, please?” Salmeron said he tried to say, in basic English. “We need to finish the service.” 

But, Salmeron and others said, the sheriff and his deputies began firing long, paintball-style rifles. Out of the weapons came pepper spray, as well as projectiles. 

“I got hit in the back by a projectile,” Salmeron said. He said he and other detainees picked up the shells after they were fired. He described them as being “different colors, and they broke into pieces when they hit us. They had white liquid or powder inside.”  

“The shooting went on for about ten minutes,” a detainee said. The men said they tried to escape by running into their dorm. “But a sheriff came to the door,” said Guatemalan detainee Julio Ariel Lemus Diaz. There were people in the dorm who had not been at the protest. They got fired on, too,” Lemus Diaz said.  

No response to records requests

Several detainees said they still had bruises a week after the incident. Others felt during the shooting of the pepper spray as though they were suffocating. Some fainted. 

ICE Southern Region spokesperson Bryan Cox confirmed to The Lens by email that “There was a disturbance” at Catahoula on May 3. He said 60 detainees “refused repeated instructions from facility staff,” and pepper spray was used against four persons “to preserve order and protect the safety of all persons.”  

Cox did not address the detainees’ claims that a local sheriff and his deputies entered the detention facility and fired on the detainees, including with projectiles.

The Lens sent emails to Scott Sutterfield, the public information officer for LaSalle Corrections, the company that owns the Catahoula Correctional Center and operates it for ICE. Sutterfield did not respond. And we emailed Billy and Clay McConnell, the owners of LaSalle Corrections. They did not answer, either. 

All of the detainees said that Edwards and his deputies wore body cameras. According to a report by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, the Catahoula Parish Sheriff’s Office had 15 body cameras as of last year. And a Catahoula Parish resident who works in law enforcement, and asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the sheriff and his men deputies regularly use such cameras. 

The Lens made multiple requests for the video footage. Edwards and his office have not responded. Nor did the sheriff’s office respond to requests for records of the May 3 incident and its response. 

“We don’t understand why the sheriff came here,” a detainee said. “It seems very inappropriate.”

‘We don’t have no industry here’

Unlike convicted criminals, ICE detainees are not locked up as a punishment. Immigration law is administrative law, so violating it is a civil infraction, not a crime. Some detainees have a history of serving time in jails and prisons after felony convictions, some of them from years ago. But more have minor convictions, often for traffic offenses. Many more have no criminal record at all. According to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, two-thirds of immigration detainees at Catahoula had no records of convictions as of July 2019.

Many came to the United States seeking asylum but have lost their cases. Or they are still adjudicating them but—especially during the Trump Administration—they have been denied bond. As a whole, ICE detainees are not a violent group. 

But as Sheriff Edwards himself has said, his parish is poor, and it badly needs to stay in the financial good graces of the Catahoula Correctional Center’s owners. LaSalle Corrections first approached the parish in the late 1990s and built what Edwards has called a “turnkey operation” to house Louisiana Department of Corrections prisoners. At first, the new prison was managed by LaSalle but paid for in mortgage installments by the parish. Edwards provided this explanation at a Catahoula Parish police jury meeting in July of last year. His remarks were video-recorded by the community’s local newspaper, the Catahoula News Booster. 

Jeremy Jong, a Louisiana-based immigration attorney*, has researched the Catahoula Correctional Center while doing civil rights litigation for people detained there. “As a state prison,” he said, Catahoula “for many years had a reputation of almost sadistic abuse” committed by guards. Jong noted that those same guards have remained on the job even as Catahoula has undergone major changes.  

The changes began, according to Sheriff Edwards, when his office found it impossible to “make the note” on the prison’s mortgage because it could not keep the beds full. Within a few years, Catahoula Parish handed ownership of the prison to LaSalle. In turn, LaSalle agreed to pay the sheriff a “sponsorship fee” for the right to operate the prison. As of late last year the fee was $10,000 a month—or $120,000 a year.

Today throughout Louisiana, the Department of Corrections pays about $24 a day to keep someone locked into its facilities. In contrast, ICE pays $65 to $75 per person per day. By 2019, LaSalle Corrections had virtually emptied Catahoula Correctional of state inmates from the local community and replaced them with much more lucrative ICE detainees. LaSalle Corrections, not the parish or sheriff, got the bulk of the extra revenue. But, Edwards told the police jurors, there was an upside to the deal: the more ICE detainees that Catahoula Correctional acquired, the more jobs would be created for locals. Guard jobs, for instance: Edwards noted that Catahoula’s guards for years had made the state’s paltry rate of $10 an hour. But because of the ICE detainees, they were raised to the federal standard, $17.

Edwards said that ICE detainees were an absolute necessity for poverty-stricken Catahoula Parish. 

“We don’t have no industry here,” he told the police jurors. “Anything that we can get,” he added, “I’m the first one that’s gonna jump on the bandwagon.”  

The bandwagon is apparently motorized by the sheriff’s desire to keep LaSalle Corrections happy. 

“We’re kind of at their beck and call,” he said of the parish’s dependence on the company.  

LaSalle and Catahoula Correctional Center, LLC, a related company controlled by LaSalle partner William McConnell, contributed a total of $5,000 to Edwards’ 2019 reelection campaign, among the largest contributions he received, according to state records. 

May 3 is not the first time Edwards has been called to the detention center. The Catahoula News Booster reported last year that he went there last July. ICE detainees were conducting a sit-down in the yard, protesting the quantity and quality of the food; dangerous and substandard bathroom conditions; and lack of access to ICE officers. 

Edwards came in response to a request from the warden. But the protest ended peacefully, with an agreement to fix the bathrooms and modify preparation of the food.

But since then, COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, jails and ICE detention centers have fueled desperation among the people locked inside, sometimes met with violent responses from management. Organized protests by ICE detainees, and even mere persistent and emotional questioning of officials, have been met with guards wielding pepper spray. The group Freedom for Immigrants, has documented several incidents, many in Louisiana. 

In late March in Jena, at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center (which is owned by yet another private prison company, the GEO Group), 79 women protestors were left in a room filled with pepper spray. Also in March, seven people were pepper sprayed in Pine Prairie, at an ICE facility owned by the GEP Group. The Winn Correctional Center, in Winnfield, is also owned by LaSalle Corrections.  In late April, according to ICE, 40 people there were pepper sprayed. All these sprayings were carried out by employees of the facilities. 

ICE has acknowledged that at Catahoula on April 20, pepper spray was used against 83 protesting detainees. It’s unknown if the sheriff and his staff participated in the spraying. But at the prayer service on May 3, detainee Salmeron said, ICE outsourced the work. He said that as Catahoula Parish Sheriff Edwards and his deputies assaulted the detainees, detention staff mostly stood by, “making fun of us and laughing.” 

Debbie Nathan reports about immigration and is based on the Texas-Mexico border, in El Paso.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story described Jeremy Jong as an attorney working for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Jong was previously employed by the SPLC but now practices on his own. (May 27, 2020)