An Awful Lot Like Prison: Immigrant Detainees in Etowah County

Sep 3, 2015

Visitation entrance at Etowah County Detention Center, Gadsden, Ala.
Credit Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

In many respects, Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama is just like any other county jail. But for 300 or so of the facility's occupants, it's a different story. They're not inmates, but immigrant detainees, and they're being held awaiting deportation. That arrangement prompted a legal complaint.

The federal government pays Etowah County and communities across the country to keep immigrant detainees under lock and key in local jails. Critics complain these locations are isolated and detainees are kept thousands of miles from friends and family.

That’s where Christina Mansfield comes in. She's the co-founder of CIVIC, short for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement.

“CIVIC is a national network of over 40 community organizations that are providing support to people who are detained. Visitation is really the heart of CIVIC and all of CIVIC's member programs that provide support and a connection to the outside world for people who are detained in our immigration detention system.”

CIVIC founded a local group called the Etowah Visitation Project two years ago. Members of this group have been visiting the detainees ever since.

“These are all local volunteers from religious groups, community groups, that go into the detention center and meet with detainees who are really isolated. And sometimes these folks are the only contact that these detainees have with the outside world.”

That was Eunice Cho. She's a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Cho says CIVIC filed a legal complaint over what local volunteers saw during visits to the Etowah County Detention Center.

“...alleged beating of detainees in order to coerce them to sign deportation papers, really huge abuses in terms of medical care…”

Christina Mansfield was made aware of some of these conditions when she first visited the facility in late 2013.

“A particular group of men were taken and were coerced into signing papers that would facilitate their deportation. At least one man was assaulted by ICE officers in an attempt to force him to sign those travel documents.”

That assault is just one of the accusations in CIVIC’s formal complaint that it filed in mid-July. Other complaints include chronic understaffing, inadequate and barely edible food, and failure to respond to medical emergencies. The complaint demanded that the Etowah County Commission immediately terminate their contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A written statement from ICE says the facility is routinely inspected, most recently in July 2014, and none of CIVIC’s claims could be substantiated.

Eunice Cho says soon after the complaint was filed, members of the Etowah Visitation Project got some bad news.

“They received a message the next day from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department stating that the project was terminated with no explanation. The only possible explanation that we have is this complaint alleging serious abuse at Etowah County Detention Center. It was retaliation.”

The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement saying members of the project began violating rules of visitation, causing issues concerning the safety, security, and orderly operation of the facility.

Christina Mansfield of CIVIC suspects there was another reason.

“There was a peaceful assembly, actually a concert. And it was on Father’s Day, because many of the men who are detained there are fathers. They are thousands of miles away from their families. So this concert was just this attempt to bring them a little hope.”

The concert was organized by CIVIC and Adelante Alabama, a labor organization. The event drew dozens of activists, protesters and musicians, including one very special guest, according to Mansfield.

“A former detainee who the visitation program supported and who was released from detention flew from California to the facility to participate.”

Sylvester Owino spent years in the detention system including at Etowah. He spoke at the event.

“I came all the way from California to give these guys support. To give them hope. I know what they’re going through right now. This place is one of the worst places in the United States and I encourage everybody to make sure that something happens to this place.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement stresses that the detainees still have visitation rights. The only thing that was terminated was the special privileges granted to the Etowah Visitation Project. But for the vast majority of detainees, that project was their only connection to the world outside Etowah’s walls.

Eunice Cho has been studying other reports of abuse at immigration detention centers, and she’s found a trend.

“This is something that has happened at many other detention facilities. When folks who have visited other detention centers and seen the abuses that take place at these detention centers have reported it to the public, ICE and the local detention facilities often try to shut out these visitation projects. In every instance, when it’s been raised that it’s a First Amendment violation and a violation of the Constitution, the visitation programs have been allowed to resume.”

CIVIC, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Etowah Visitation Project, and the detainees at Etowah County Detention Center are all hoping that trend continues.