A memorial service was held over the weekend in front of the Etowah County Detention Center for a former detainee who contracted an infection while in custody that paralyzed him from the neck down and died shortly after his release.
Teka Gulema had been held in ECDC, which is contracted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain unlawful immigrants. When he became ill he was transferred — still in custody — to Gadsden Memorial Hospital, where he remained for eight months. Gulema was officially released from ICE custody two weeks before his death according to an attorney who visited him.
ICE representatives said Gulema was released from custody Nov. 24, 2015, after a comprehensive review of his case determined he no longer posed a threat. He remained paralyzed in the hospital until his death on Dec. 9.
“ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis with a priority for detention of serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety or national security,” said Bryan Cox, the Southern region communications director for ICE.
“Those who are not subject to mandatory detention and don’t pose a threat to the community, or those whom court precedent requires them to be released following a determination that there is not a significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future, may be placed on some form of supervision as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program,” Cox said. He did not specify if Gulema was placed in one of these programs after his release.
Since 2010 there have been 56 deaths in ICE custody including six suicides and one death after a suicide attempt. None of those occurred in Etowah.
Gulema, an Ethiopian national, was granted lawful permanent resident status in 1990. In 2006, he was convicted of assault and battery in Arlington County, Virginia, which eventually landed him in the custody of ICE.
Jessica Vosburgh, an immigration attorney with the National Day Labor Organization Network, said that despite being severely paralyzed, Gulema was lucid and was able to communicate with visitors in the hospital. It did cause him pain to speak, she said.
“Part of the problem is that we know so little,” Vosburgh said. “There’s been a huge lack of transparency and ICE trying to wash their hands of any responsibility…the time is obviously very suspicious.”
On Sunday, nearly three months after Gulema’s death, an empty, makeshift casket was placed across the street from the ECDC while several dozen people gathered to memorialize Gulema. The mourners burned incense and sang “We Shall Overcome,” as deputies looked on from across the street.
After the short service, the casket was carried across the street for a procession along the perimeter of the detention center. Long shadows were cast on the western wall of the edifice as the mourners marched solemnly, followed closely by a mounted patrol.
Overhead, detainees could be seen in the fourth floor windows of the ECDC holding up signs that could not be read from the street below. Those in the procession waved in acknowledgement and held up fists in a show of solidarity.
Naveed Azam was one of those detainees in the window. On Tuesday, Azam spoke over the phone about Gulema, whom he knew, and the lack of healthcare available to those being held in Etowah.
“I know he is in a better place,” Azam said. “I just want his death to mean something. I can only imagine what he went through.”
Having suffered for two years with two herniated discs in his back, Azam said he was taken for a CT scan and spoke with a surgeon but has not been told when the procedure will take place. “It can paralyze me if I bump my back the wrong way,” Azam said. “My approval for surgery has been impending for six months now. They keep telling me soon, but nothing is happening.”
Azam, who said he was being monitored by guards at the time of his interview, declined to comment further about the life in the detention center.
Gulema’s death raises questions about the availability of healthcare and the conditions to which detainees are subjected while in ICE custody at the ECDC. The Etowah facility is considered one of the worst immigration detention centers in the country, according to multiple studies conducted by the prison reform group Detention Watch Network.
In 2010, ICE announced it would not renew its contract with Etowah. State legislators, including then U.S. Senator Richard Shelby and Rep. Robert Aderholdt, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, lobbied to keep the contract with Etowah. In April 2011, ICE announced it would continue housing detainees in Etowah indefinitely.
Last November, more than 40 men in the ECDC went on a hunger strike in protest of the food and the overall conditions at the facility. Those being held are not awaiting trial. They are being detained until they are either deported or released as Gulema was. Some detainees have been held in Etowah and other facilities for five or more years.
“The population mainly comprises immigrants facing longer stays in detention who are housed at Etowah because of its low rates, just $35 a day per person,” noted a 2012 report by Detention Watch. “There they suffer terribly due to the remote location of the facility and acute chronic conditions, including poor phone and visitation access, the lack of any outdoor recreation or access to fresh air or sunlight, inadequate medical and mental health care, meager and barely edible food, and minimal programming,” the report reads.
The $35 per inmate per day used to house and feed the population of roughly 250 in Etowah is well below the national average of $79 a day, according to the Office of the Federal Register.
Father Tommy Morgan, the priest who presided over Gulema’s memorial, took a tour of the facility in January and mentioned many of the same conditions that are outlined in the Detention Watch report.
“These men in this detention center, some of them are criminals, and they’ll tell you that, but if they’re criminals, why are they in a detention center? They don’t have court dates, no habeas corpus, no opportunity to see their families,” Morgan said.
“The two biggest concerns I have for these men is the lack of reasonable medical care and the nutrition. And actually the third thing is exercise. What they call an exercise yard is the end of the dorm wings with concrete block walls 15 feet high and a small opening at the top,” Morgan said. “The county says that’s outdoor activity.”
In Gulema’s case, Morgan believes ICE released him so that they would not have to write a report to the U.S. Congress about his death. ICE did not respond to comments about the circumstances surrounding his death.
“People don’t want to know what’s going on here,” Morgan said. “What we have here is a poor county that’s getting millions of dollars with their contract [with ICE], but at what cost? How many human lives are going to be destroyed so you can bring in a few million dollars to the county?”