Note: this article, featuring our Deputy Director of the International Program Samantha Feinstein and our clients, was originally published here.

Whistleblowers Allege Unsafe Conditions at Richwood Correctional Center, Watchdog Group Reports

MONROE, La. (KNOE) – The Government Accountability Project watchdog group is reporting unsafe conditions at the Richwood Correctional Center based on information that it said comes from whistleblowers.

The group sent a letter to Congress last week to express those concerns.

Samantha Feinstein, Deputy Director of the International Program of the Government Accountability Project, said whistleblowers are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 within the center.

According to Feinstein, those allegations include co-mingling between healthy detainees and those who have the virus.

She said she’s also been told that staff members weren’t allowed to wear personal protective equipment for a period of time.

“So there were a number of people who were fearful for their lives and for their own personal health can safety,” she said.

She said she was told that even when it was allowed, it wasn’t being enforced.

She’s said she had also heard that the dorms where detainees are being held aren’t cleaned in accordance to CDC guidelines.

One allegation Feinstein mentioned involved staff members lowering the temperature of a room in order to lower the temperature of an ICE detainee so they could pass a temperature check.

“So there were some efforts to kind of conceal the health of the people who were being deported, potentially spreading COVID-19 not just to detainees, to staff, but, potentially-the majority of these detainees are from Mexico or El Salvador,” she said.

The Associated Press reported in April that two guards had died of COVID-19.

Feinstein described a “culture of retaliation” inside the facility. She said she’s been told that those who tried to voice their concerns were either met with dismissal or retaliation.

“Raising concerns with management has been exhaustive, and they feel that if there’s not more congressional action or oversight over the facility then the coronavirus will continue to spread,” she said.

Feinstein said she wants employees of Richwood Correctional Center to know they have the right to blow the whistle. However, she advised them to speak with an attorney first.

“It’s really important that whistleblowers are informed about the risks that are involved and learn how to protect themselves when blowing the whistle and fully understand what their rights are as well as what the risks are,” she said.

Feinstein said the Government Accountability Project has resources for those who may not be able to afford an attorney. She said employees can also reach out to OSHA.

KNOE reached out to LaSalle Corrections, which owns the Richwood Correctional Center, for comment on the watchdog group’s report of the allegations.

A spokesperson wrote in a statement:

“Very difficult to respond to unsupported allegations submitted by an anonymous source. However, I will outline the tremendous efforts LaSalle Corrections is taking to mitigate impacts of this unprecedented pandemic. Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), LaSalle Corrections has been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance. LaSalle Corrections implemented our Pandemic Contingency Plan in response to COVID-19, that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures.

“LaSalle Corrections has closely followed the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which evolved over the course of the pandemic as health authorities learned more about COVID-19.

“It is important to point out that contractors play no role in transfer or release decisions for detainees. Managing detainee populations – including where they are cared for and when they are released – is the role of our government partners.

“As this pandemic continues, we want to acknowledge the tremendous work that our employees are doing each and every day to protect the health and safety of the men and women in our care. The skills, talents, and dedication of our workforce form the foundation of our success in responding to this unprecedented pandemic.”