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Immigrant Detainees Staging Hunger Strikes to Protest Deplorable Confinement

The South Louisiana Correctional Center has seen five hunger strikes in one month, as detainees are denied medical care and access to legal libraries.

When more than 60 prisoners at the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile, LA, began a hunger strike last week, in protest of the facility's deplorable conditions, guards at the immigrant detention center placed at least six of them in solitary confinement for 60 days . The planned 72-hour strike was the fifth of its kind in one month at the facility, whose parent company, LCS Corrections Services, holds a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to manage the detention center.

Last week, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, along with other human rights and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urging her to address the mounting complaints at the detention center. "Over the past one month this center has become a symbol of all of our national concerns about ICE's widespread failure to ensure its facilities … meet ICE's own minimum detention standards," wrote Saket Soni, Executive Director for the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Detainees, he wrote, are "risking their own health to call attention to ICE's violation if its own minimum standards and to demand permanent improvements."

This move came one day after the Obama administration issued its own letter on July 27, 2009, in response to a federal court petition, stating its refusal to create lawfully enforceable rules for immigration detention. The letter, from the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, concluded that "rulemaking would be laborious, time-consuming and less flexible" than the Bush-era practice of monitoring detention standards -- inspections void of any legal retribution. That same day, immigrant detainees held at the South Louisiana Correctional Center began their hunger strike, protesting the conditions they are forced to endure, and denouncing the Obama Administration's decision to continue a practice that they say is simply not working.

The New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice has maintained contact with more than 100 detainee human rights monitors, chronicling the detention facility's environment. In a report, the group detailed how the facility consistently violates whole portions of ICE's 2008 mandates outlined in its Performance Based National Detention Standards. The guidelines, which were revised from previous standards set in 2000, defines measures for Medical Care, Hunger Strikes, Access to Legal Materials and Disciplinary Policies and more -- but detainees say the standards are neither monitored nor satisfied.

When Immigrant Detention Is a Death Sentence

Juan Marin Corona is a detainee and human rights monitor at the South Louisiana Correctional Center, where chronic myelogenous leukemia and diabetes are eating away at his body. He has said that he's prepared to sacrifice his life in detention in order to get the Obama administration to pay attention to the circumstances he faces. Corona may literally be preparing to die: he says he has not received a medical examination, much less the medication necessary to combat his grave illnesses, since he arrived at the facility about two months ago. Corona, who says he's never seen an ICE inspector monitor the facility, says that he hopes his "body will provide testimony that the system needs to change." For Corona, that change would occur when ICE terminates its contract with the facility that's putting his life at risk.

Detainee Fausto Gonzales was brought to the detention center in late June, and compares the mostly non-existent treatment for his high blood pressure, allergies, asthma, and claustrophobia to other immigrant detention facilities he has been held, in New York and Pennsylvania. Like Corona, Gonzales says he hasn't received a medical examination either. He was offered allergy pills, but they didn't help his condition. He explains that the rodents and insects that litter his cell aggravate the effects of the facility's lack of ventilation, which further impacts his asthma. Despite his condition, Gonzales has been trying to fight his deportation case. This has proven difficult; although the Correctional Center has a law library, he says he lacks regular access to it, and was only allowed to visit once, for an hour. Because there is no privacy for what should be confidential legal calls, he has to talk to his lawyer in New York on a phone where others can hear him.