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How many hunger strikes will it take?

Jeanfamily From a letter of testimony by Christina Fernandez, a wife of a detainee held at the Reeves County Detention facility:

Are they asking for a massacre?  Or do they think that we the wives, children, parents, siblings and family members of these men will sit back and wait until we receive body-bags, because they didn’t do their job as officers of the law and staff members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons?

My husband is over 500 miles away from his home address (so are many of the other Cuban prisoners) and in a facility that is not for him.  He is a resident of the United States and though he is of Cuban nationality, he is not deportable.  I am a born US Citizen and so are our three daughters,  we have not seen my husband, their father, since January 2009…Something must be done for my husband and the other Cuban men, so that neither I, nor any of the other families receive a phone call of bad news. I want my husband returned to me and our daughters in one piece and alive.

The atrocious conditions and lack of medical care at Reeves have already led to two large scale riots by prisoners following the death of an epileptic detainee, as well as numerous protests, vigils and marches organized by activists and human rights groups. With no answer to the detainees and their families and no action from the Bureau of Prisons, Manuel Joan Friere Alfonso and Jorge A. Fernandez, along with 16 other Cuban nationals that are being held at the detention facility, are threatening to go on another hunger strike if they do not receive immediate redress for their grievances.

This comes close on the heels of the five individuals in Homestead, Florida who began the New Year with their pledge to Fast for Our Families. Jon Fried, Jenny Aguilar and Wilfredo Mendoza are some of the individuals who have vowed to consume only liquids until the President and the Department of Homeland Security respond to the demands of all those families that have been torn apart by detention and deportation. In a letter they wrote to President Obama six days after they began their fast, they expressed that:

The situation in which immigrants live and the hurt that the people we represent are enduring has forced us to take drastic action…we understand the risks we confront and we will not deny the fact that we are scared, but we cannot just sit and wait for Immigration Reform. Every day that goes by, dozens of families are destroyed. Every day that passes, hundreds of children are separated from their parents and thousands of young students are in detention instead of in college…Mr. President, please put yourself in our shoes and just imagine for a minute what it would be like to be separated from your beautiful daughters just because you were born in a different latitude.

Then, on January 5th 2010, the Fast for Our Families campaign received national attention when Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant leader who was detained on December 30th during a routine check-in with ICE, began his own fast in prison, joining his efforts with the fasters in Florida. Since then over 1,000 petitioners and 50 organizations have come together to demand Jean’s release.

Jean entered the U.S. on a green card, as a legal permanent resident, in 1986. Three years later, at the age of 19, he was convicted of selling cocaine and served 11 years in prison for his crime. He is now 41 years old, is married to a U.S. citizen, Jani Montrevil, and is a father to four American-born children. Moreover, he has since stayed out of trouble, started a van service to support his family and become a community leader; he is an immigrant rights activist with the New Sanctuary Coalition and Families for Freedom.

On December 30th, Jean made his check-in with ICE in New York, which he has done every month since he was released from prison, and was unexpectedly arrested and transported to a Pennsylvania prison. According to immigration laws passed in 1996, any immigrant convicted of a felony, even if retroactive, can face deportation, but ICE has not released any statements as to why he was arrested this time. Jean is on a hunger strike, refusing to eat food until the government reforms laws on deportation practices that “destroy families.”

Support for Jean’s release is growing after a rally of over a hundred people protested for the reform of these draconian immigration laws outside the Varick Street Immigrant Detention Center in New York on Tuesday, January 5th. Amongst the protesters were 8 clergy and 2 community members who were arrested for blocking traffic to prevent the transport of more immigrant detainees. Rev. Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church, who knows Montrevil well, stated:

I am being arrested because it is a moral outrage that our government would do this to such a great man and father. These immigration laws that destroy families contradict the values we should uphold as a society. They need to change now.

Jani Montrevil showed support for her husband’s decision to join the fasters in Florida and said of their common goal, “We will fight together!” And Jon Fried, who has almost completed a week of his fast was excited to hear the news. “It is great to know that this movement to keep our families together is spreading across the country, he said. All across the country, solidarity actions for Fast for Our Families are being planned, with groups in Texas and New Hampshire organizing efforts to join in support over the next week. 

We despair that such drastic, physical measures are required to ensure that families are reunited and future families are spared the horror of losing loved ones, and can only hope that these measures bear fruit before it is too late.

Please sign the petition to the President and the Senate demanding Jean’s release by clicking here.  If you represent an organization that would like to show support for Jean, sign on here.

Find more information about Jean Montrevil’s case here.

Photo courtesy of www.newsanctuarynyc.wordpress.com

UPDATE: As of January 25th, 2009, Jean Montrevil was released from detention. The fight continues to end the threat of deportation, but he is back home with his family and community members in New York City.

ACLU Texas advocate reveals inside look at inhumane conditions and profiteering at GEO managed detention center

reevesProtest_smGuest Blogger: Tracey Hayes from American Civil Liberties Union of Texas

Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) is a for-profit prison managed by GEO Group, an international prison management corporation, to hold so-called “criminal aliens.”  Located in the far reaches of barren West Texas, RCDC sits on the outskirts of the small town of Pecos. History associates the remote location with the legend of Judge Roy Bean, known as “the law west of the Pecos (River).”

Built to hold up to 3,760 criminal aliens (though many are confined for unlawful re-entry), according to the detention facility website, no one knows for sure how many are there because officials do not disclose the real number. What we do know is that detainees are being housed in small cells with 50-55 people or more per room.  Detainees report that as they sleep, they are bumping into each other for lack of space.

On December 12, the ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, Southwest Workers Union and family members of some of those incarcerated marched from the Reeves County courthouse to RCDC to direct attention to the life-threatening conditions and inhumane treatment that has resulted in nine detainee deaths in the past four years.  A year ago, following the death of an epileptic inmate in solitary confinement after being denied adequate medication, detainees rioted to protest poor medical care. An ACLU of Texas request for a federal investigation of this outbreak has gone unanswered by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.

The goal of our march and vigil was to commemorate the anniversary of the riot, and bring public attention via the media to the litany of unaddressed abuses at RCDC through our staged action, which it succeeded in doing.  See below:

Meanwhile, our legal staff gained admission to the prison and was given the opportunity to interview detainee after detainee to learn more about what is actually happening inside.

Here’s what they discovered: Prison officials keep medical costs down by making it almost impossible for inmates to get adequate medical care. They keep food costs down by serving low quality food in insufficient amounts.  They keep administrative costs down by restricting access to grievance processes with English-only requirements and by punishing English speakers who assist mono-lingual Spanish speakers in filling out the forms.  Bi-lingual speakers who try to help others must eventually choose between being thrown into solitary confinement or ending their translation assistance.

Furthermore, GEO’s cost-cutting has led to a long and steady rise in the company’s profits while atrocities continue unabated.  For example, detainees spoke of medical staff prescribing “two Tylenol” to detainees who complain of stomach ulcers, blood in the urine or stool, and metastasizing lumps spreading over aging bodies.  And inmates with previously diagnosed chronic and serious conditions were also prescribed “two Tylenol.” When they press their cases to obtain the medicines they need, detainees are often thrown into solitary where they are unable to ask for further medical attention or submit grievances.

Of the detainees ACLU of Texas attorneys interviewed, one reported:

“I have 2 teenage boys and a son in the military.   I do not want to be the next person to die.  When the riot happened in 2009 I almost burned to death.  The unit was on fire and the guards left us in the unit to die.  The inmates had to break a window for us to get out.   I don’t really tell my family how it really is here, enough is the worry of me being here. The commissary sheet is in English, the inmate request forms are in English.  It is getting harder for me to help other inmates [by translating].  I have already been warned and was placed in the hole for 21 days.  I feel like I am in a concentration camp.”

Detainees stories substantiate the severity of ongoing civil and human rights abuses.

GEO’s contract with Reeves County is up for renewal in March. If conditions are not improved dramatically, RCDC should be closed and detainees should be transferred to a facility that is equipped and staffed to meet basic minimum needs of the persons held there.  Please JOIN US in asking that the Bureau of Prisons investigate living conditions and medical treatment at RCDC.

To get more information about Reeves County Detention Facility and how you can help, please visit www.aclutx.org or email me at thayes@aclutx.org.

Photo courtesy of ACLU Texas

One year ago, a private profit detention center saw a spate of riots in reponse to a detainee death

reeves_prison_uprising1On December 12th 2008, 32 year old Jesus Manuel Galindo died in solitary confinement at Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) in Pecos, Texas. Galindo was a Mexican citizen whose death was caused by multiple seizures and inadequate medication and medical care. He had been in solitary confinement in the ‘security housing unit,’ which the inmates called “the hole,” since November, and during that time his mother and fellow inmates had repeatedly warned prison authorities that Galindo was suffering from severe seizures and was desperately in need of daily medication for epilepsy.

By the time Galindo’s body was found in his solitary cell, rigor mortis had already set it, indicating that he had been dead for some hours. A toxicology report found “below-therapeutic levels” of Dilantin, a cheap anti-epileptic drug, in his blood. The medication is only effective if administered in fixed dosages with the patient’s blood being check regularly. According to Robert Cain, a neurologist who reviewed Galindo’s autopsy, he concluded that “[w]ith multiple seizures, inadequate levels of medication and left in isolation without supervision, he was set up to die.” The medical neglect and human rights abuses at the Reeves facility have resulted in nine reported deaths over the past four years.

According to a Reeves County prisoner:

We are on lock down 21 hours a day. When you’re sick they don’t call you till a week or a month later. There’s people that put in request for surgery over six months ago and they still haven’t gotten it.

Jesus Galindo’s death sparked off two multi-day uprisings by inmates in December 2008 and January 2009 to protest the inhumane treatment and lack of medical attention for the detainees. When they saw Galindo’s body being removed from the facility in a large black plastic bag, the inmates set fire to the recreational facility and occupied the exercise yard overnight. The first uprising or “motin” as the Spanish speaking inmates call it lasted only 24 hours, causing the prison one million dollars in damage.

After the first riot, the inmates sent a delegation of seven representatives to talk with the authorities.

They explained that the uprising had erupted from widespread dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of the prison: inedible food, a dearth of legal resources, the use of solitary confinement to punish people who complained about their medical treatment, overcrowding and, above all, poor health care.

A month later there was a second riot at the detention center during which detainees set fire to the security housing unit, demanding immediate redress for their demands. This insurrection lasted five days and cost the prison 20 million dollars. One year later, the inmates’ demands are yet to be met.

The Reeves County Detention Center is owned by the GEO Group, and is the largest privately owned prison facility in the world, housing 3,700 detainees. With the number of prosecutions of immigration crimes surging over the last few years, the need for detention centers and jails has also gone up. 68,000 people were prosecuted for immigration-related offenses in the first nine months of 2009, and 50% of those took place in Texas. Following the huge increase in immigration related arrests, federal agencies have outsourced the building and administration of detention facilities to private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. For-profit prison facilities are run as low-risk and high-reward for the corporations that run them, and the immigration facilities such as the RCDC are specifically located in remote, economically deprived communities.

A Boston Review article discusses the problem with privately managed prisons and their lack of accountability:

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Prisons are owned by local governments, but local oversight of finances is rare, and the condition of prisoners is often ignored. Inmates such as those in Pecos are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In commemoration of the one year anniversary of the uprisings and Jesus Galindo’s death, and in the spirit of International Human Rights Day, a number of rights advocate organizations are coming together to denounce the neglect of human rights and the continuing abhorrent living conditions at the Reeves County Detention Center. The ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, Southwest Worker’s Union, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are organizing a march and vigil on December 12th to draw attention to the events of last year and demand accountability from the GEO group. The organizations have also drafted a letter to the BOP (The Bureau of Prisons) demanding that it terminate its contract with Reeves County and the GEO Group if they fail to comply with basic detention standards.

And for an intimate look at immigration detention-related deaths, check out Breakthrough’s End Homeland Guantanamos campaign.

Photo courtesy of www.malcolm-che.com