Naveed Azam came to America from Bangladesh looking for freedom, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found him first.
The detainee’s voice on the phone was a little shaky but articulate when he spoke in March. Azam hesitated when speaking at length about conditions while in custody at the Etowah County Detention Center — he was being monitored by a guard during the allotted 15-minute phone call.
In Bangladesh Azam was a student organizer for the Jatiya political party during a time of political unrest after President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who led a coup to overthrow the previous president in 1982, was forced out of office in 1990. An opponent of the president, Azam said he was beaten and tortured by government police and his family was threatened before they fled to Saudi Arabia. Eventually, Azam made his way to the United States in 1991 on a student visa he applied for at age 17 while in Saudi Arabia.
After he attended Troy University, he worked construction and had two children of his own — both U.S. citizens. In 2010 Azam was picked up by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, because his student visa had expired and his estranged wife notified the authorities. Since then Azam has refused to sign his deportation papers on multiple occasions for fear of being killed upon his return to Bangladesh. “The people who wanted me dead are still in power there,” Azam said, speaking from inside the detention center in Gadsden. As long as he refuses to sign his deportation papers, he will remain in ICE custody.
Azam is not alone in being stuck. The facility itself remains mired in controversy as determined opponents, demonstrating on behalf of detainees like Azam, seek to shut the place down.
On April 3, protesters gathered in front of the ECDC and called for the closure of the facility. It was the third organized demonstration in Gadsden in as many months. Activists with the Adelante Alabama Worker Center said Sunday’s march was aimed to keep pressure on ICE to release the records of a former inmate, Teka Gulema, who died after contracting an infection in the ECDC. The protest was also another in the ongoing effort to persuade ICE to void the contract with the Etowah County Commission that keeps them housing federal detainees at what is essentially the county jail.
So far, ICE hasn’t budged. But as the voices of protesters continue growing, there are signs that the immigration service is being moved to do something.
Since that interview in March, Azam and several other asylum seekers from Bangladesh, many of whom participated in a nationally publicized hunger strike at ECDC in November, have been transferred to an ICE deportation staging area in Florence, Arizona, according to Jessica Vosburgh, an attorney with the National Day Labor Organization Network. Vosburgh said Azam has not yet complied with his deportation proceedings, but she suspects he will be pressured to do so.
Azam has been out of contact with the media since arriving at the Florence Correctional Center. The facility’s website contained this notice: “Detainees cannot receive incoming calls. If you need to get in touch with a detainee you must call (520) 868-9095 and leave the detainee’s full name, alien registration number and a telephone number where you can be reached. He or she will be given your message.”
By all accounts, it is also difficult to get information about exactly what goes on inside of ECDC, which has held a contract with ICE since 1998. The contract brings in about $5.2 million in federal funding to Etowah County each year to house the detainees.
Over the course of three months, Weld requested in-person interviews with some of the men being held at the ECDC. At one point, as Weld was trying to finalize the particulars of the impending interviews with the detainees, Bryan Cox, Southern Regional communications director for ICE, noted that he was in San Francisco for the Super Bowl and the request would have to wait until the following week. That was two months into a process that Cox initially said should take about five days.
Eventually, ICE officials denied Weld’s requests for interviews just days before the scheduled visit, citing vague “security concerns,” that were never explained.
“As Natalie [Barton, public information officer for the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department] previously explained to you, the National Detention Standards which govern ICE detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center specify that leadership can deny an in-person visitation if such a visit is deemed to pose a threat to safety. ICE and Etowah County jointly made that determination in this case,” Cox wrote in a Feb. 24 email to Weld.
Instead, the detainees could speak over the phone and under the supervision of a guard who, according to the men being interviewed, were only an arm’s length away. Men who have been released from ICE’s custody mentioned an underlying fear of “retaliation” that follows detainees who speak out about the conditions in the facility.
Built-in logistical difficulties
Etowah’s detainees have described similar difficulties when it comes to scheduling visits with family members or having access to legal council. Even then, the visits are conducted through a TV monitor, not in person. The field office in charge of the detainees in Etowah is located in New Orleans, roughly seven hours away, making any kind of coordination for visitation more difficult for the men being housed there.
It was while processing the scheduling of a routine visit through ICE that Gulema, a former ECDC inmate, died on Dec. 9, 2015, from the infection he contracted in Etowah that paralyzed him from the neck down. Records show he remained in ICE custody for nearly a year while in the Gadsden Memorial Hospital, only to be released from federal custody two weeks before his death.
Also during that time, Hughes Alexander, another inmate being held in Etowah, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. On the day he was scheduled to start his chemotherapy treatment, he was released and given a bus ticket back to Tampa where he had been originally picked up by ICE five years earlier. Although instances like these are not uncommon, according to detainee advocates who have been calling for ECDC’s closure, Gulema’s death in particular only served to accelerate efforts to get the government to shut down the facility.
With per diem rates for housing prisoners much lower than those of other facilities in the country — it costs about $40 a day to house a detainee in Etowah — the ECDC has become a federally funded warehouse for men who do not necessarily fit into the system for long periods of time. Many of them are asylum seekers, like Azam, who fear what awaits them if they are returned to their home country and have refused to sign their deportation papers for years.
About 300 men are currently being held indefinitely in the large grey structure that looms over Gadsden’s downtown district. Etowah County, by area, is the smallest county in Alabama and is home to roughly 104,430 people, according to the most recent census data. By contrast, ECDC is inexplicably large compared to other county jails in Alabama.
The size of the facility has raised questions about why Alabama congressional leaders lobbied so fervently to maintain the contract with ICE when it was at risk of being voided in 2010. According to the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department, about 50 people would be out of a job if the ICE contract went away.
“No sunlight in that place”
One of the more troubling aspects of the facility, according to those who are calling for its closure, is the complete lack of an outdoor recreation area. In lieu of a yard there are several narrow openings at the top of a tall concrete wall covered in chain link fencing on the fifth floor. Some detainees have not actually been outdoors in years except while being taken to see a doctor or while being transferred to another facility.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin said the small openings meet the ICE standards from 2001, which are the agreed-upon terms of the contract. “If they went to change the standards we would [have to make upgrades] but right now we meet the requirements of the 2001 standards,” Entrekin said.
Originally from Dominica, Alexander, who was released from Etowah and placed on a bus to Tampa after being diagnosed with cancer, had been held in ICE custody for five years, much of that time spent in ECDC. His case demonstrates the odd ways that people find themselves in ICE custody.
In 1992, Alexander was convicted of presenting false documents to a police officer. He remained free until he had another run in with the law in 2004 and was charged with simple battery. Alexander said he paid his bond for the 2004 arrest and was released.
It was at this point he realized a motion his attorney had filed with the Board of Immigration Appeals after his previous conviction had been withdrawn. With that motion withdrawn, Alexander was subsequently flagged by Homeland Security.
“He failed me, but he took my money,” he said, referring to his attorney. “That’s what they do to people like me. People have paid so much money and attorneys don’t do anything for them. It happens all the time,” Alexander said.
Like many other undocumented individuals, Alexander worked in construction and stayed free and out in the open despite the fact that Homeland had been made aware of his legal status after his 2004 arrest. He worked hard and started a family with his wife. Then in 2010, he said, his by-then ex-wife called the law on him. Alexander, now a father and grandfather to two generations of U.S. citizens, was taken into ICE custody from his home in Tampa in 2010.
Alexander was held at several different facilities in Florida and Louisiana, including the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Florida, which is considered the worst immigration detention center in the country by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network. Alexander said that no explanation is given to detainees from ICE officials when they are transferred to another facility and it is not uncommon for them to be moved regularly.
“We were treated like slaves — worse than slaves. It’s pathetic,” Alexander said of his time being transported and detained at the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana. “I was placed in the SHU [solitary housing unit] and was not told why. I wrote a letter to ICE asking what was going on but I never got an answer. The guards just told me I must have done something wrong, but I knew I hadn’t.”
Still in custody in Louisiana, Alexander suffered a back injury while he was trying to climb onto the top bunk of his cell. He saw a doctor and received some injections before he was transported — again without explanation — from Louisiana to Etowah County in January 2013, he said.
“I was feeling better before I left, but the pain was excruciating when I was on the bus. When I got to Etowah, everything was different. That place was a nightmare,” Alexander said grimly. “This place was something else entirely.”
Speaking over the phone from his home in Tampa, he recalled the cold feeling of the chains that were wrapped tightly around his hands and waist as the bus bounced roughly down the highway to Etowah during the ten-hour ride from Louisiana.
According to Alexander, Etowah has the worst conditions of all the facilities he was held at during his five-year detention tour.
“The food is garbage. The portions are so small that you’re hungry 30 minutes after you eat…The inside looks proper, but we get locked down in cells for 16 hours a day. There is no sunshine in that place. There is no fresh air. Medically speaking, that can harm human beings. That kind of long-term detention will affect anyone. We didn’t know when we would be getting out. I’ve seen grown men cry. These aren’t criminals and they are being punished as slaves.”
An uncompassionate release
After spending a few months in Etowah, Alexander said he began to have severe stomach pains and was prescribed Omeprozale, a generic proton pump inhibitor typically prescribed for heartburn, to help mitigate the pain he was experiencing. “I didn’t think too much about it because it helped at first, and I was feeling better so I assumed the doctors were doing a good job,” Alexander said. “But I noticed my feet started to swell after about a year of taking the tablet.”
Alexander said he met several other men in Etowah who were taking Omeprozale and their feet were swollen too. “Men would be itching all over. We started to realize a lot of men were taking this same tablet. It’s like they were just prescribing it to everyone. I don’t know if they just get a good deal on it or what.”
Despite the medicine he was taking, his stomach issues persisted for two years. “My stomach was burning all the time. So I went to see a doctor on the outside. They put me to sleep and took out a piece of my ulcer. Three weeks later the doctor told me I had stomach cancer…I know there is something in that place that causes cancer because I had been healthy,” Alexander said.
While still in custody at the ECDC Alexander underwent a procedure to remove some of the cancer, but the doctors noticed that it had metastasized and spread throughout his body. His chemotherapy treatment was slated to begin on January 27, 2016.
“They told me they had scheduled me a time to be there at 9 a.m. to start chemotherapy. They told me not to eat the night before,” Alexander said. At 10 a.m. that morning, he was still in his cell and no one had come to take him to his treatment. “That’s when they told me they were going to let me go. I never saw the doctor again.”
Without the chemo — or any explanation — ICE released Alexander and gave him a bus ticket back to Tampa. He has no insurance to pay for cancer treatments. “I felt like they sent me home to die,” Alexander said. “I lost my home. I lost everything because of these people. And they don’t care.”
ICE representatives did not respond to questions about Alexander.
Gerardo Mendiola, a current ECDC detainee, considers himself lucky to have avoided a health issue. But his complaints about Etowah touched upon one of the same issues Alexander’s did: the poor quality of food there.
“My day starts with a wake-up call to go eat breakfast, but I don’t even get up for it because it’s not worth it. Why would I get up for a little piece of bread and not even a cup of oatmeal? It’s real small amounts. I just wait until lunch, which is also very small,” Mendiola said.
Mendiola, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1980, was granted permanent citizenship in 1989.
Like the other men who were interviewed, Mendiola speaks fluent English with just a hint of accent. He’s been in the United States since he was 10 and considers himself a full-blown American citizen. Mendiola was convicted in a domestic violence case in 2010, but after being on probation for 3 years, ICE picked him up in Texas, where he lived.
In June 2015 he was transferred from an ICE facility in Texas to Etowah. While his four children were able to visit him while he was in Texas nearly every weekend, he has not seen them since he was transferred last year. He has not been given any timeline for when he will released.
“I never violated any of my conditions with my probation officer. That’s why I don’t understand why they picked me up,” Mendiola said. “I’ve been in custody since 2013. I haven’t had any fights or an argument with anyone so I really don’t understand what’s been going on.
“Mentally I am just drained out. I would at least like to hear that they are looking at my case or something. I’m completely in the blind over here.”
“We’re in the business of detaining folks”
The road from Interstate 59 to the Etowah County Detention Center is desolate. It’s hard to miss the abundance of long-neglected, unintelligible marquees like the one just off the exit in front of an old building: “Gentleman’s Club, Dancers Wanted.” After about two miles worth of shuttered businesses, empty factories and abandoned lots, the grim edifice of the jail peaks over a ridge.
Founded in 1825, Gadsden was once an important economic driver in the state. The city is situated along the banks of the Coosa River and used to serve as a major point of commerce for riverboats. Factories were built and the economy grew. That was until the 1970s and ‘80s, when the closure of major manufacturing plants like the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant and the Republic Steel Corporation ushered in a time of sharp economic downturn.
Since then the city has struggled to find any economic footing as made evident by the large “Now Leasing!” sign plastered across the entrance to the deserted Gadsden Industrial Park.
In 2010 ICE officials sought to cancel their contract with the ECDC citing the “consolidation of facilities as a cost saving measure” and a move being “smart for saving our limited resources,” according to a Dec. 9, 2010 email published by NBC News — five years to the day before Gulema died from an infection he acquired in Etowah.
When news broke of the potential cancellation of the ICE contract, members of Alabama’s congressional delegation were quick to condemn the decision. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions along with Rep. Robert Aderholt, who at the time was chairman of the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Homeland Security, lead the charge for “aliens” to remain in Etowah.
“The Senator is frustrated with the agency,” the ICE email reads. “See the attached article about a recent episode involving Shelby’s retaliation against the administration over another matter involving Alabama interests. This meeting is as much about mollifying a uniquely blustery Senator as it is about the substance of the issue.” Eventually ICE gave in to congressional pressure.
The deal to house detainees is between ICE and the Etowah County Commission. Entrekin, the county sheriff who has been with the department for 30 years, wishes Alabama sheriffs were in charge of contracting out prisons. “By Alabama law I don’t have the ability to contract. I wish I did,” he said. Still, he added, the current arrangement needs to be maintained for the good of his employees. “This contract means 50 or more jobs to me,” Entrekin says. “That’s what’s important to me, to keep these folks working.”
Others feel strongly that ECDC needs to close, despite any concerns for employment in the county.
On Sunday, more than 50 protesters gathered outside the ECDC demanding the closure of the facility. It’s become a routine sight for Entrekin, who looked on from the steps of the jail along with a dozen deputies and mounted patrol officers periodically making their presence known to the protestors.
“We have so many [protests] it’s hard to tell one from the other. We’ve been having one about once a month for the last three months,” Entrekin said.
As the group gathered along the western wall of the jail, several hands emerged from the fencing along the opening that serves as the recreation area on the fifth floor. Shouts of “Freedom!” could be heard by those on the street below. One man held up a sign reading, “They’re feeding us trash.” Another held a sign saying, “2 Years Inside.”
“They need to get a life,” Entrekin said of those gathered in front of the jail. “These folks ain’t got nothing else to do. You see the ones protesting? Watch for a protest in Birmingham for an abortion clinic or something and they’ll be there. Watch any other protest on the news and they’ll be there. It’s the exact same people.
“What is their complaint? Shut Etowah down? Food? Medical? We’ve been inspected 18 times in a 12-month period and passed every single one of them,” Entrekin said. “Every complaint filed against us is found to be unjustified or untrue.”
The inspections Entrekin referred to are conducted in-house by the Department of Homeland Security. While the ECDC has passed multiple inspections, records of the inspections made available by the National Immigrant Justice System reflect a pattern of deficiencies, as outlined in reports of the DHS’s Office of Detention Oversight.
A 2012 report shows deficiencies in five categories, paralleling the complaints of some of the men being held there, including detainee grievance procedures, food service, funds and personal property, medical care and staff-detainee communication. A 2011 report also cites nine deficient components.
The sheriff seemed to relish the contentious discourse surrounding the conditions of the jail and scoffed at complaints from detainees about food and access to medical care. “We’re in the business of detaining folks,” Entrekin said. “Detainees are detainees are detainees, just like criminals are criminals. When they’re in jail they’re going to tell you a lot of things. As far as healthcare, we are one of two [facilities] in the state that are certified in correctional healthcare, which brings with it a lot of things we have to do and a lot of paperwork that other places don’t have to do. Any time we have a complaint, it is looked at completely.”
Entrekin pointed to a comment made by an ICE official about the food when he was visiting ECDC. “I really like the statement he made. He said, ‘If you’re in the mood today for tacos and we’re serving pizza, that ain’t gonna be what you wanted for lunch.’ When you’re in an institution you’re going to get what everyone is getting. It’s not always going to be to your [satisfaction].
“Do we make mistakes? Hell yes. Everybody makes mistakes. We’re human. But are we feeding them adequately? Very much so. I’m willing to bet that every one of them that’s come here has gained weight. I don’t know of any of them that leave here losing weight. Again, it may not be what me and you want to eat, but it is a nutritional meal.”
Neither Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton nor members of the Etowah County Commission responded to requests for comment about the jail.
Death and deportation
Now in Arizona, Naveed Azam is now facing what in March he had described as a death sentence.
“I don’t know when — or if — I will be released because I have a ‘failure to comply’ status, which is someone who is not cooperating to sign the deportation papers. I’ve declined my scheduled flight six times now. The last time was in 2014. Twice from Louisiana and four times when I was in Florida,” Azam said.
“If I land over there, that’s the day I will be apprehended by the government and be subjected to God knows what. What happened to me over there is unparalleled to anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I have to keep fighting. I have scars and memories that still haunt me to this day and I know the mentality of the people in power there and nothing will ever change. Even though a lot of time has passed, nothing has changed. I’m trying to make the court system over here realize that,” Naveed said.
His mother, who had returned to Bangladesh, passed away in 2012 while Azam was in custody. He has not been able to track down any other relatives in Bangladesh.
Azam’s trouble proving his case to remain in the U.S. has been made more difficult by his distance from his court-appointed lawyer. He maintains that the attorney isn’t even communicating adequately with him.
Access to quality legal representation for undocumented men and women in America is a widespread issue, said Karen Lucas, associate director of advocacy with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“Access to council in ICE detention is extremely difficult,” Lucas said, speaking from Washington DC. “Individuals who are detained have serious issues when trying to secure pro bono council which impacts their due process.”
More often than not, Lucas said, the path out of detention can be limited to deportation, death, or in Alexander’s case, sudden discharge due to impending medical costs associated with cancer treatment.
After Gulema’s death in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to investigate the circumstances. “We’ve had a long-term concern with Etowah and the way it’s used to warehouse people for very long periods of time,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU in Washington, DC. The ACLU has obtained medical records for Gulema from ICE.
Takei said the ACLU is still trying to figure out a way to discuss what those records reveal, but he did say that the organization has “very serious concerns regarding the medical care Mr. Gulema received at Etowah after reviewing the records.”
By the time Gulema was admitted to the hospital, the infection was “very severe.” After reviewing the records, the ACLU questions why it took so long for him to be taken to a hospital. “This is something that the DHS Inspector General needs to investigate …. not only because of the medical care he received at Etowah but also the circumstances of his release from ICE custody right before his death,” Takei said.
On Sunday, before the majority of protesters gathered outside ECDC, a gray-haired woman, who requested that her name not be used, sat alone on the curb across the street from the jail. She held a sign reading, “His name was Teka.” Four mounted patrol officers passed directly in front of her, which caused her to flash a wry grin. “Looks like they got me surrounded,” she said. “You know, I live here in Gadsden and I never see the horses unless there is a protest. I guess they’re just trying to show off or something.”
She stood up for a moment to wave to the men inside. “I get sad every time I drive by this place,” she said. “I think it’s easy for people to forget that these are human beings here. People write them off as aliens and illegals and people who don’t belong here because it’s a convenient truth to buy into. But me, I want to see them. I want them to know they aren’t alone in there. The people in charge would love it if we all just forgot about them. That’s why sometimes I’ll just come sit here and wave.”