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Activists speak out in Louisiana as support for ICE detainee hunger strike grows

On Dec. 13, activists gathered in Monroe and Jena, Louisiana to hold press conferences at both the Richwood and LaSalle detention facilities to protest abusive conditions. Party for Socialism and Liberation members from Missouri, California, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana joined together with activists from the ANSWER Coalition, Semillas Arizona, and Louisiana Tech University’s YDSA to support the 53 women who courageously went on hunger strike on Dec. 2, and to call for an end to their abuse and demand that they be granted asylum. 

“As community activists we are gathered to announce a campaign to expose the abuse and lack of proper food and medical care for women and men who are not guilty of anything,” Gloria La Riva stated at the press conference held outside LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena. “They are refugees suffering the worst jail conditions because they dared to leave dangerous situations in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States, dangerous situations that are the fault of U.S. foreign policy, like Haiti, Colombia, Honduras.”

Reporters from local stations KNOE and KTVE were on the scene to cover the press conferences and interview activists. Neither press nor activists were allowed to enter the premises of either facility, despite posing no danger.

Louisiana currently holds the second highest number of ICE detainees in the country, while also granting asylum at an abysmally low rate – only in 10% and 16% of cases compared to a national average of 42%. Many of these detention centers popped up in the void left by prison reforms in Louisiana which reduced its prison population from 40,000 prisoners to only 27,000 prisoners. Corporations such as GEO (the world’s largest private prison corporation) and LaSalle corrections filled the void with more lucrative ICE contracts. With the number of border detentions hitting record numbers, the profit incentive for these capitalist vulture corporations to hold asylum seekers for extended periods of time is strong.

This, however, is not just a Louisiana issue. Bezal Jupiter, a PSL activist from Jackson, Mississippi, explained, “Mississippi and Louisiana are very similar places… Mississippi has the highest incarceration rate in the United States and Louisiana has the second highest rate of ICE detainees.” This is a problem that reaches throughout the entire South, and in fact the entire country. 

PSL activists prepare signs the night before in their hotel rooms

The activists first learned of the horrendous conditions of these ICE facilities from a woman named Irma Díaz, who has been living in the United States for 15 years as a hotel housekeeper but has been detained in the Richwood facility since September. Irma, a Type-1 diabetic, says that she has been denied insulin and is being fed a diet of almost entirely carbohydrates with no fruits or vegetables, which is a potentially deadly combination for someone with her condition. 

The injustice Irma is facing is only one example among many others suffered by the women and men who are either being denied medical treatment or are receiving nutrient poor diets. “We’ve spoken to the people who are detained themselves, and we know from first-hand discussions with them of the sufferings that they (Richwood) have caused,” says Estevan Hernandez, activist with the ANSWER Coalition. “The horrible diet is more than just having bad food, it means your whole health deteriorates completely.”

On top of all of that, detainees in these facilities have been denied any visits from the outside, with COVID-19 protocols being cited as the reason. This is in spite of the fact that federal prisons have been allowing visitations to take place during COVID for many months, as La Riva herself testified from her first hand experience. 

This isolation, combined with the cruel conditions, has put many of the detainees under pressure to sign papers for their deportation, a move that would be catastrophic for many of them. Irma, for instance, has 3 children who are all DACA recipients that she would never be able to see again if she signed off on her deportation papers. However, the longer these asylum seekers remain in detention, some up to 7 months, the greater the temptation to escape the torment becomes. In fact, many of them are being told that if they sign the papers, they can simply reapply later for asylum, which is patently false.

At the conclusion of each rally, the activists blasted messages of hope and encouragement to the prisoners in both English and Spanish through the PA system. “Do not despair! Do not give up hope! We are building a movement! Solidarity with your struggle!” 

The suffering of these innocent asylum seekers and refugees is the direct result of a system which prioritizes profit over basic human decency. Their home countries were ravaged by imperialist intervention, and now that they have fled for the United States out of desperation they are caged and held indefinitely so that U.S. capitalists can once again profit from their exploitation. Lucy Mayfield, a PSL organizer in Springfield, Missouri, pointed out, “I grew up among the church folk of Holden, MO, and one of the things I grew up being taught was that the love of money was the root of all evil … I think we see today in our ICE detention centers exactly how that evil comes to fruition”. 

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