Revolution #98, August 19, 2007

A short, brutal, and ugly history of imprisonment in Jena, Louisiana… and plans for more of the same in the future

Jena, Louisiana: While white students hang nooses on trees and 6 Black students face years of prison for a schoolyard fight (see “Hundreds March Against “Legal Lynching”: Free the Jena 6!”), another outrage is in the works: A new prison is scheduled to open, run by U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to incarcerate up to 1,160 immigrants.

Because of the very workings of this capitalist system, thousands of immigrants have no way to live in their own countries and risk their lives, and often leave their families to come to the U.S. to try and find a way to survive. They are hunted down, rounded up, brutalized, and deported—many times cruelly separated from their children. Now, many of them will be locked up in Jena, Louisiana.

Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the country--816 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents. Although Black people make up 32 percent of Louisiana's population, they constitute 72 percent of the state's prison population.

The new ICE prison will be housed in what used to be the Jena Juvenile Correctional Center that was opened in the mid 90s and owned by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. This prison, and others owned by Wackenhut, was investigated and found guilty of widespread abuses, including the rape of young women prisoners, widespread sexual abuse, and excessive use of force. When CBS 60 Minutes did a program in May 2000, exposing abuses in prisons nationwide, they focused on the one in Jena.

After a lawsuit was filed by the Juvenile Justice Project for Louisiana, the U.S. Justice Department was forced to investigate the Jena Juvenile Correctional Center and concluded, "Jena's environment is unsafe, violent and inhumane for the juveniles incarcerated there.” Louisiana's Department of Corrections took control of the prison and in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the prison was used to house prisoners evacuated from New Orleans. This was after these prisoners had been left, locked up in their cells as floodwaters rose inside the prison (see “Doing ‘Katrina Time’—Torture in New Orleans Prisons” by Li Onesto, Revolution #64 (Part 1) and #66 (Part 3), December 8 and 22, 2006 and “They Left Us There To Die,” Revolution #16, October 2, 2005).

A press release written by Human Rights Watch stated: “Inmates at Jena claim that correctional officers have beaten, kicked and hit them while they were shackled. In addition, they claim that officers have forced inmates to stay kneeling for several hours at a stretch, and then hit them if they fell. They also say that officers sprayed the walls with chemical spray that inmates believed was mace and forced inmates to hold their faces against the sprayed walls. When some inmates became ill and vomited, officers wiped their faces and hair in the vomit, they said.”

The prison was closed down again. But now it’s reopening again. And the ugly history of this place will continue—this time, with immigrants brutalized behind prison walls. Posters have gone up around town for a prison job fair, and the Jena Times ran a full-page ad for jobs at the new prison. This is yet another intolerable outrage: That they are counting on people in Jena, including Black youth who face a future of nothing but unemployment, being cannon fodder in the military or prison, to be part of the persecution and unjust imprisonment of immigrants.

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