WINNFIELD, La. (AP) — Tucked away in the dense forest of rural Louisiana is a barbed wire-ringed prison that has quickly grown into a major detention center for immigrants arrested at the border.
The Winn Correctional Center is one of eight Louisiana jails that have started housing asylum-seekers and other immigrants over the past year, making Louisiana a remote epicenter for immigrant detention under President Donald Trump. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it's holding about 8,000 immigrants in Louisiana out of 51,000 nationally.
These facilities, a mix of old state prisons and local jails, are several hours away from New Orleans and other major cities, far from most immigrant rights' groups and immigration attorneys. Prisoners complain of mistreatment and prolonged detention.
"I knew they would detain us, but I never thought it would be for this long," said Howard Antonio Benavides Jr., an 18-year-old from Venezuela who has been at Winn for three months.
The surge in detention has occurred against the backdrop of a criminal justice overhaul in Louisiana that has reduced the state's prison population and threatened the economies of the small towns that rely on jails.
ICE has stepped into the void. At Winn, which started detaining immigrants in May, employee salaries have risen from $10 an hour to $18.50. Local officials have signed contracts that guarantee millions in payments to the local government, the state, and a private prison company based in Louisiana, while still allowing ICE to detain people at a daily cost well below its national average.
ICE refused several requests to comment on why it focused on Louisiana. In a statement, it said it identifies "contracts that can be modified to accommodate increased agency needs."
ICE and the private prison company operating the jail, LaSalle Corrections, allowed The Associated Press to visit Winn for three hours in September and take photos and video under the condition that detainees’ faces not be shown.
The AP was not allowed to speak to any detainee but Benavides, who agreed to an interview through his attorney. As a large group of prisoners held in one tier started shouting "come here," in Spanish, jail officials prevented observers from approaching them and directed them outside. The men continued to shout from the windows.
Nearly 1,500 people are being held at Winn, where they sleep on twin beds in long, narrow units with barred gates. Formerly a medium-security prison, Winn has a dining hall, outdoor soccer fields, a gymnasium, and a chapel built by former inmates.
During the AP's visit, a group played soccer, with others refereeing the game and keeping score. Around 200 people sat in the chapel listening to another detainee — a Pentecostal preacher — speak of God and Jesus.
Most of the detainees appeared to be Spanish speakers. Others spoke Hindi and wore orange coverings wrapped around their heads.
A few classrooms have been turned into virtual courtrooms with video teleconferencing equipment where detainees appear before immigration judges based in New Mexico. Nurses and medical staff provide check-ups at a clinic on site.
Detainees are required to walk from site to site with their hands clasped behind their backs, as if handcuffed. Most employees don't speak Spanish or Hindi and communicate with prisoners using hand signals or a few words of English that one person can translate to others.