At least 10 pairs of hands could be seen banging inside the narrow window on the fifth floor of the Etowah County Detention Center while protestors gathered across the street on Monday.
The dozen or so protestors were massed outside the prison to show solidarity for the more than 40 detainees who have been on a hunger strike since Thanksgiving Day.
Those refusing meals in the facility — which is contracted by the U.S. Immigration, Customs Enforcement Division (ICE) to house immigrant detainees — are part of a larger movement of hunger strikes taking place in federal detention centers in Alabama and California.
According to a Vice News report, about 110 prisoners are said to be refusing meals in three facilities: the Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC), San Diego’s Otay Detention Facility and the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, California.
In a letter sent to the immigrant advocacy group, the Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a Bangladeshi identified as Mahbubur, described the conditions he said detainees have been subjected to while in custody.
“Not only in Alabama, many Bangladeshis are also passing miserable days in other detention centers across America,” Mahbubur wrote. Like many other detainees currently on hunger strike, Mahbubur is an asylum seeker from his home country. “They came to the United States with a hope to get asylum, but as their asylum applications have been denied and they are under order of deportation, in that case if they are deported to Bangladesh the present government will persecute them accusing them of creating unrest or vandalism by bringing false charges against them,” he wrote.
Yazmin Contreras, an organizer with Adelante, said that her group is there to show support for the 49 detainees who began the hunger strike last week. “We’ve been in contact with some of the men in there,” she said. “We know there is a huge need for improved living conditions. They are being denied their basic human rights.”
There is some dispute over the number of hunger strikers. Adelante representatives did not have a comprehensive list of the detainees readily available upon a reporter’s request. ICE declined to release a list, citing privacy laws. However ICE representative Nestor Yglesias indicated that there are 44 men still on strike as of Monday, not 49.
According to Mahbubur, several of the detainees have attempted suicide out of fear of government retribution if they are deported back to Bangladesh.
“We appeal to the Department of Homeland Security and the government of the United Stated of America to consider our case on humanitarian ground [sic] and free us from this miserable detention,” Mahbubur wrote. “We want to live a honorable life and we would like to inform our families back home that we are in good condition in America.”
Detainees from the three facilities have issued a list of the following demands: End all deportations and detentions, end ICE detention bed quotas, end indefinite detention (release on parole or supervision for all asylum seekers held for more than 6 months) and improved conditions in detention centers (discipline, food, clothing, access to phones, medical access).
Demonstrators gathered outside banged loudly on empty plates and pans and chanted, among other things, “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
Lisa Moyer, one of the protest organizers, said that many of those currently on hunger strike have been held for months despite completing several of the preliminary steps in seeking asylum from various countries where they were attempting to escape persecution.
“It’s been organized by primarily South Asian men who are asylum seekers who said ‘I’m here, please help me, I’m seeking asylum,’ and instead of being helped they were taken directly to detention,” Moyer said. As she spoke, a car horn honked, presumably in response to protestors holding up signs reading, “Honk for #Justice.”
Moyer, an immigration advocate, said that many of the men she has spoken to in ECDC have completed their Credible Fear Interview (CFI), a rigorous interview process in which officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service make the determination whether or not an individual will face persecution if they are deported back to the country from whence they fled.
“The man who has been here the longest has been held for 23 months. And that’s just from the people who are on strike,” Moyer said.
According to national immigration advocacy groups, hunger striking detainees have faced retaliation from prison officials. “[Prison officials] knew about the strike a couple days before it happened. Now we are hearing reports that [prisoners] are being placed in solitary confinement and facing medical intervention,” Moyer said.
Natalie Barton, director of communications with the ECDC, said Monday’s demonstration was one of many protests that have taken place outside the prison in recent months.
“These are the same protestors we see very often. I really want to know what their day jobs are. It’s like they are professional protestors,” Barton said while standing just outside the entrance to the prison.
When asked about the reported retaliation against the detainees, Barton said, “Anything concerning a detainee must go through [ICE]. We are not authorized to give any information on behalf of ICE or anything concerning the detainees,” Barton said. “We just simply house them here. ICE agents are the ones who work their case.”
Yglesias released ICE’s statement in regards to the situation in Etowah:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care and we continue to monitor the situation. ICE’s Etowah Detention Center is staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents at the facility. ICE also uses outside, private medical/mental health care service providers as needed. Individuals have access to meals served three times daily at the cafeteria, snacks provided by the facility, or food purchased from the commissary.”
The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that the “Etowah County Sheriff’s Department [is] contracted by ICE to house several hundred immigrant detainees at a cost of about $45 per day.” Nationwide, the average cost for housing an immigrant detainee is roughly $164 per day.
In a 2006 Homeland Security policy known as the “bed mandate” ICE is required to maintain an average of 34,000 detainees. This controversial measure has caused asylum seekers to sit in limbo for years in some cases.
The ECDC has come under fire in recent years for alleged poor living conditions inside the prison. In 2010 the Obama administration promised to house detainees in newer facilities, not located in rural areas hours away from the nearest immigration court. The ECDC is nearly seven hours from the nearest ICE field office in New Orleans.
Despite pressure to close the ECDC, in 2011 ICE renewed their contract to hold up to 325 inmates at the facility, due in part to lobbying efforts from state lawmakers who saw the potential closure as a major loss in state revenue according to the Detention Watch Network.
In their 2012 report, the Detention Watch Network named the ECDC as one of the top-10 worst immigrant prisons in the country. That same year roughly 100 detainees participated in another hunger strike, claiming the facility was serving food that was rotten and nutritionally inadequate, according to the report.
“Advocates have long raised concerns about the conditions of confinement that immigrants detained at Etowah face,” the report reads. “The continued use of Etowah is inconsistent with basic human rights standards and the facility holds hundreds of people who will likely not be deported from the United States. Their confinement under these terrible conditions is taking place at great taxpayer expense.”
Also troubling to advocates is the fact that detainees do not have access to an outdoor area and spend months at a time indoors. Officials with the ECDC declined to comment on reports of the conditions inside the prison. ECDC also refused to allow a reporter access to the inside of the prison or to the hunger striking detainees.