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Immigrant detainees begin hunger strike to protest conditions in Calif. jail

It is the third hunger strike in Yuba County Jail in 10 months

By Elliot Wailoo
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At least 16 people detained by federal immigration authorities in the Yuba County jail have refused food for four days in the facility’s third hunger strike in 10 months.

The immigration detainees, who are mixed in with other inmates at the Marysville jail, are demanding newer facilities, better medical attention, and follow-through on promises to improve conditions. And they say they don’t wanted to be treated as “criminals” like the other inmates in the jail.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is currently detaining nearly 200 people in the facility, said Leslie Carbah, a spokeswoman for the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department.

On Wednesday morning, activists from the Sacramento Immigration Coalition and other advocacy groups rallied outside the jail-courthouse complex in support of the strikers. They spoke in both English and Spanish and were critical of the jail’s and ICE’s policies toward the detainees. Joe Engle, a representative from the Sacramento Immigration Coalition, read a statement from an unnamed detainee inside the jail who said conditions were substandard.

“I’ve been in Yuba County jail for 12 months now. When I arrived, the living conditions were inhumane and they still are,” the detainee wrote. “There are cells that have no water, the lights are not working ... we are being treated not as ICE [detainees], but as criminals.”

Other complaints included cockroach-infested rooms and insufficient time out of cells.

Officially, a hunger strike begins when detainees have refused food for 72 hours, or nine meals, according to Carbah. However, they often still eat commissary food -- small snacks like chips or ramen that they must pay for. But ICE’s guidelines for dealing with hunger strikes instruct facility administrators to remove all commissary or vending machine food from the striker’s room.

Rios Kravitz says this happened during the last strike in February. She also said that as of Wednesday late afternoon, strikers were moved to H pod, which she said is the oldest and dirtiest part of the building, which at least one Yuba County grand jury report called a “dungeon.” Jail officials could not be reached Thursday for comment.

ICE detainees make up about half of the jail’s residents. As of 2014, 220 of 433 total beds in the facility belong to ICE, which pays the jail $97.39 per day for each detainee. With an average detainee population hovering between 170 and 190, the operation brings in almost $6.5 million a year for the jail.

Paul Prince, a spokesperson for ICE in Northern California, said that 16 of the immigration detainees are participating in the hunger strike. By late Wednesday afternoon, Rios Kravitz said the number was down to 14.

The last hunger strike at the facility happened in February 2019, and ended after a few concessions were made by the jail. According to Casbah, the detainees were given their own exercise yard space separate from criminal inmates. Detainees and criminal inmates are currently housed in the same jail, but while inmates wear orange, detainees wear red.

The Yuba County Jail Facility has been open since the mid-'90s and has consistently earned “deficiencies,” or failures to meet ICE standards in areas like access to legal materials, use of force, and sexual abuse and assault prevention and intervention. In 2014, for example, the review commission found 14 deficiencies in the facility management.

Yuba County has been awarded $20 million by the state to build new adult correctional facilities, but construction has not started yet.

In a speech at the Wednesday event, Rios Kravitz demanded immediate changes to the system, including opening up the facility for inspections by an outside ombudsman and making public all records of use of force, solitary confinement, hunger strikes and suicide attempts.

“ICE has made it excessively difficult as to access how it and its contractors treat the people in its custody,” she said.

For detainees, little progress has been made on their previous demands. Carbah, the county sheriff’s spokeswoman, said that potential changes are limited by a consent decree, or a legal settlement between the jail and its inmates, which has been in effect since 1979.

“We have started this third hunger strike because we are tired of empty promises,” said the unnamed detainee in the statement. “We understand that we might not see any of these changes happen while we are here, but we’re willing to make this sacrifice to have our voices be heard and to make a dent in the system that is crooked.”

(c)2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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