A wide-ranging complaint submitted Monday by over a dozen civil rights groups to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alleges that the Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Facility in Pine Prairie, Louisiana has been using solitary confinement and punitive segregation not only for disciplinary infractions at the facility, but also as a way to isolate detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic, a response to other mental and medical health emergencies, and as retaliation for detainee protests and complaints.

According to the report, detainees with no disciplinary infractions — including those with COVID-19 symptoms — were kept in solitary confinement in conditions that were “virtually identical” to those in disciplinary segregation for 22 to 24 hours per day for weeks at a time, in some cases without access to medical care. 

“This pattern of implementing punitive solitary confinement is abusive, unlawful, and tantamount to torture,” the report reads.

The complaint, which was signed by civil rights groups including the ACLU of Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy (ISLA),  also alleges that the facility has been denying detainees access to clean water and food, sanitary supplies, and that there is a lack of access to COVID-19 vaccine.

The complaint comes the same week as a separate ACLU report, obtained by BuzzFeed, detailing the force-feeding of ICE detainees who staged hunger strikes in protest of detention center conditions, including at Pine Prairie.  

Pine Prairie is operated under contract by the GEO Group, a major private prison company. In an email, a spokesperson for GEO Group denied the allegations in the reports, saying they were being “advanced by radical special interest groups with a politically-motivated agenda.” 

“For more than three decades, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, we have been a trusted service provider to the federal government, providing consistent, high-quality services at all our facilities.”

According to ICE’s own COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements, when detainees need to be isolated due to potential infection or exposure to the virus, they are required to be placed in housing that is “operationally distinct” from “any form of punitive housing.” 

But at Pine Prairie, the complaint alleges that people who contracted COVID-19 were frequently placed in solitary confinement, where they were denied access to any recreational materials or activities. In addition, despite having COVID-19, they received sparse medical attention. 

“We had several clients who had things like asthma or kidney issues who were being placed in solitary while they had COVID-19 — actively experiencing shortness of breath, blurry vision, migraine headaches,” said Sarah Decker with RFK Human Rights, in an interview with The Lens. “They’re locked in these cells where, you know, there’s a little food slot. And that’s the medical visit that they receive every day. Nobody’s checking their pulse or their oxygen levels.”

The report also alleges that solitary confinement  “is the default for detained immigrants who seek mental health counseling,” and that it has been used to punish detainees for protesting their conditions of confinement — which has occurred several times in the past year. 

One detainee who speaks fluent English, the report says, has been put in solitary confinement repeatedly for voicing concerns of other detainees at the facility. 

“When he translates the complaints of others or voices their concerns, the Pine Prairie personnel routinely punish him with solitary confinement,” the report reads. “He has been placed in solitary confinement over six separate times. Each time he was held for approximately 45 days – three times longer than the internationally recognized lawful limit.”

Homero López, with ISLA, said that detainees aren’t given any mechanism for challenging their confinement, and that there is no adjudication process for determining whether discipline is warranted. 

“There’s not even really much of a process in general — much less due process — as to how someone can challenge it, or how someone can even know why and how it’s being analyzed as to why they’re being punished the way they are,” he said. 

In their emailed statement, GEO Group said that “under no circumstances is assignment in a special management unit used in a retaliatory manner or without careful adherence to ICE’s  Performance-Based National Detention Standards.” 

The report also says that immigrant detainees at the facility are not being given access to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

In May, ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that around 20 percent of detainees being held nationwide had received their first shot. During that testimony, U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood, Democrat of Illinois, said that based on numbers available to her the percentage of fully vaccinated detainees was only around seven percent. 

ICE did not respond to requests for comment or provide data on how many detainees had been vaccinated at Pine Prairie or nationwide.

“Pine Prairie is absolutely not unique,” Decker said. “This is happening all over, in every detention center in Louisiana.” 

‘Where folks are left with no options’

In recent years, Louisiana has seen a dramatic increase in its share of ICE detainees, becoming second only to Texas in the number of detainees held by the agency. 

The decision by ICE to focus on placing detainees in Louisiana is a mix of financial and legal calculation, legal scholars and advocates have suggested. A decline in the state’s prison population following criminal justice reform efforts at the legislature have opened up space in prison facilities that can be contracted out with ICE, often for cheaper than in other parts of the country.

In addition, a combination of local and circuit judges who are friendly to ICE in the state, along with a lack of lawyers to represent immigrant detainees in rural communities, puts ICE at a legal advantage when seeking deportations and asylum denials. 

“A perfect storm of factors makes Louisiana a desirable location for ICE to house detainees,” a recent article in the Louisiana Law Review explains. 

For detainees themselves, Decker said, Louisiana is less desirable. 

“A lot of people that we interviewed called it a place of no return,” she said. “Because in Louisiana, the denial rates are so incredibly high, compared to other states, for both parole, bond, and asylum. So people get shipped off to Louisiana, and they know that they’re going to have a really hard time — the odds are just so against them. There’s fewer attorneys per person in these detention centers. And they’re far away from their families.”

“That’s kind of why we are focusing on Louisiana,” she said. “Because it has kind of become this place where folks are just left with no options.”

López said that previous complaints to DHS over similar issues have been given cursory investigation and deemed unwarranted. But he said he hoped that under the Biden administration they may be taken more seriously. 

“Am I expecting that tomorrow, they’re going to come out and say, ‘We’re shutting down Pine Prairie?’ Not necessarily,” he said. “But you know, we keep on pushing. And that’s what we can do.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...