Immigrant Detainees Go on Hunger-Strike Over Conditions at Pinal County Jail

Immigrant detainees being held at the Pinal County Jail were on a hunger strike over conditions at the jail, according to the human-rights group Puente.

Long before conditions at facilities for child migrants came to the forefront, complaints were lodged against the Pinal County Jail, which is used as a federal immigrant-detention facility under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Puente released a letter signed by 150 detainees at the jail, documenting a series of complaints about conditions at the jail.

The allegations are remarkably similar to those laid out in a New Times cover story about the Pinal County Jail, which was published nearly three years ago.

The detainees complain about not being able to go outside, not having the proper conditions to fight their immigration cases, very high costs for phone use, and no contact visits with family members.

It looks like some things don't change. Here are some excerpts from that 2011 story:

The Pinal County Jail is one of five facilities in Arizona used by the federal government to hold immigrants in long-term detention. The jail is notorious among immigration attorneys and human-rights advocates, who consider it the state's worst immigrant-holding facility. . .

The Pinal County Jail was built in April 1996 to hold 472 prisoners. In 2006, the building was expanded to include 1,032 new beds.

To help fund the incarceration complex, Pinal County signed a contract with the federal government to hold more than 600 immigrants at any given time. The jail is the second-largest detention center for immigrants in the state. Only the Eloy center is larger, with 1,500 detainees.

Pinal County makes $59 a day per detainee, meaning its contract is worth $36,000 a night -- $13 million a year. . .

Immigrant detainees at the Pinal County Jail are isolated from outside contact, unlike detainees at the Florence Detention Center, Florence Correctional, the Central Arizona Detention Center, and the Eloy Detention Center.

Pinal County is the only federal contractor in the immigrant-detention business in Arizona that does not allow its prisoners to go outdoors.

The Pinal County Jail also is the only facility that does not allow prisoners to see family in person. . .

Pinal County contracts with a private company for its phones, and a 15-minute phone call can cost $20 -- money that few detainees have. (The situation is a little better at Florence Detention, where calls cost 17 cents a minute.) The result is that many county detainees cannot contact their relatives. . . ICE is quick to emphasize that it requires contractors to sign an agreement to uphold federal detention standards and that humane treatment of immigrants is paramount among these standards.

Mandates include warm meals and access to outdoor recreation. As mentioned, the Pinal County Jail refuses to provide the latter to the immigrants it holds, even as it allows criminal inmates outdoor privileges.

This despite a 2009 internal ICE report, "Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations," acknowledging that there are major differences between corrections and detention -- mainly that corrections are "punitive" and detention is "civil."

The ICE report emphasizes that the philosophy of "care, custody, control" is inappropriate when dealing with immigrant detainees.

ICE acknowledges that it does not train its contractors to follow federal detention standards, which was obvious when New Times interviewed Pinal County Chief Deputy Kimbell, who is in charge of the jail.

Asked whether he sees a difference between "criminal inmates" and "detainees," Kimbell answers, "Corrections, detention -- it's all the same thing" . . .

Detainees are still kept indoors and denied access to their families at the Pinal County Jail, which, [an ACLU attorney] says, is the "perfect example" of how detention facilities punish immigrants for deciding to fight their civil cases.

Also from that story is a short profile of how the jail conditions affected one woman and her family:
Leticia is a Guatemalan who spent 21 months in ICE custody, 12 of them at the Pinal County Jail. She was the single mother of two minors, 17 and 8, when she was detained. Both are U.S. citizens.

In January 2009, after living for 20 years in Phoenix, she was taken into ICE custody. Leticia's case is, like most immigrants' cases, full of complications.

She applied for legal status in 1996 and was granted it in 1997. But with the passage of a 1996 immigration law, the rules for earning legal status changed, and a judge retroactively applied the new law to her case, denying her plea to remain in the United States.

The attorney representing Leticia did not specifically challenge the retroactive ruling in his appeal, and the immigration Board of Appeals authorized her deportation in 2002. Her attorney appealed that order and, in 2004, the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court affirmed that she could be deported.

ICE did not take her into custody until January 2009.

The next month, a different attorney filed a habeas corpus petition on her behalf in the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the immigration court got its ruling wrong, her previous lawyer had been incompetent, and deporting her would be a grave injustice for her family, creating orphans the state would have to care for.

While the court considered her petition, Leticia was detained by the federal government and denied contact with her family.

After a couple of weeks in the Pinal County Jail, Leticia asked an ICE agent how long she might expect to be imprisoned.

When Leticia finished explaining the details of her case, the agent looked at her and said, "Cases like yours take seven to 10 years."

Leticia was horrified and considered signing a deportation order to get out of jail. But her teenage daughter, Leslie, wanted to remain in America, so she decided to continue fighting her case.

For more than a year, Leticia was not allowed to see her children, except on a small, primitive computer monitor attached to a telephone receiver. The situation was the same for the children, who viewed their mother on a corresponding monitor in the jail's visiting area.

No-contact visits are a jail rule for not only criminal inmates but for immigrant detainees. There is no face-to-face contact (not even through plexiglass), much less any touching.

It took more than a year after Leticia was taken by ICE for her to hug one of her children, and it happened as a fluke. Her 8-year-old son began crying for his mother during her court hearing, and a guard had the heart to allow them a short visit.

The separation adversely affected the boy. Depressed, he started failing in school.

During a phone call from jail before the hearing, Leticia had asked him what was wrong. "He started to cry and cry," she remembers. "'He said, 'Mommy, it's never going to be the same without you.' It was so terrible."

Visits from family and friends occur in a cramped room containing two rows of dingy monitors, with a camera perched atop each screen and a phone beside it. The detainee never sees his or her relative except in a grainy transmission that looks like security-camera footage.

ICE officials claim to be sensitive to detainees' need for contact visits.

They tell lawyers and activists that detainees at the Pinal County Jail are allowed in-person visits with family members -- if they file a special request.

But in statements to New Times, ICE representatives tell different stories about the issue of contact visits.

Vincent Picard, agency spokesman in Arizona, says ICE "regularly" takes detainees from the Pinal County Jail to Florence Detention for contact visits, a claim contradicted by ICE field officer Marty Zelenka, who supervises federal detention in the county jail.

Zelenka says he never has denied a request for a contact visit but has received "very few."

Immigrant advocates at the ACLU and detainees say otherwise, insisting that contact visits are denied routinely at the jail.

"Almost all detainees to whom we spoke either indicated they were denied requests for contact visits or did not know they could even request such a visit," states the Arizona ACLU in a just-released report titled "In Their Own Words: Enduring Abuse in Arizona Immigration Detention."

As for the extremely limited visitation system at the jail, Leticia's daughter, Leslie, tells New Times that on several 65-mile trips from Phoenix to the jail to see her mother, she was turned away because prisoners had been put on lockdown or there was a problem with the jail's computers. Sometimes she was told to come back the next week.

Again, the detainees' letter, which is embedded at the bottom of this post, describes many of the same circumstances.

According to Puente, about 70 of the men went on a hunger strike, but ended it a couple of days ago after getting a commitment from ICE to review their demands.

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Contact: Matthew Hendley