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Yuba County Jail

The old saying "When one door closes, another opens" ran through my mind as we were escorted into the Yuba County Jail. The protocol is simple, one giant iron door slides open, you step through, and then it closes. Then, the next iron door slides open, allowing you to step into another area of the jail. Every door is controlled by a sheriff's deputy in a control room, watching every inch of the jail through ever-present cameras. We're here today because we'd heard horror stories about immigration detainees who had lived through time in this jail. Stories from different people, who had never met each other, who had been to the jail at different times, seemed to match. The latest, the story of a young woman from our own community, prompted us to ask for an opportunity to see things for ourselves. What we saw, was, and was not what we expected.

Run by the County Sheriff's office, the Yuba County jail is located in the quaint town of Marysville, a bit north of Sacramento. The jail can hold upwards of 400 people, and typically "immigrant bed sales" represent about 160-180 of the jail's daily population. Yuba County has a contract with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to house immigration detainees. On March 1, 2003, The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was reorganized as U.S. Immigation and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and placed in the Department of Homeland Security. The contract with ICE, according to Lt. Downs of the Sheriff's Department, is quite welcome. "It pays for about 16 staff people." he said. Joining us for our tour were two ICE officers, out of the San Francisco field office, neither of whom had visited the jail before. In fact, they got a bit lost confusing Yuba County with Yuba City, a frequent mistake given that Yuba City is in another county.

Before telling about what we saw, it is only fair to start with what we had heard that prompted our visit. ICE frequently "sweeps" local jails, looking for prisoners who might be "foreign born," especially undocumented ones. A young woman we knew, had been in a domestic altercation, and was being held at the Redwood City Jail when ICE agents swept through. She, and a group of other women, were swept up and put in a van, taken to a San Francisco ICE facility. They were tossed into tiny cells, wearing only the clothing they had on when they were swept up in Redwood City. For our young friend, that was just night-time sleeping underwear. The jail was air-conditioned and very cold. No blankets, no room to lie down, nothing to eat or drink, surrounded by frightened women.

Later the women were packed up for the long ride to Yuba County. Most of the women spoke no English and didn't understand what was happening to them. Our young friend spoke perfect English. The daughter of a Salvadoran couple, refugees from the death squads the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980's, a series of unfortunate events and mistakes led to her not getting her legal residency before her 21st birthday. Her parents had gotten theirs and had she been a year younger at the time their long legalization process had been completed, she too would have been legalized. Now, past her 21st birthday, she had to fight the battle for legalization in a post-9/11 America and she had not yet succeeded. Thus, when the ICE agents came through, she was taken away.

The ride from San Francisco to Yuba County, about three hours long, was in the back of a van, crowded with other shackled women, their bodies being tossed around and banged up and down. One older woman kept begging for the drivers to stop because she needed a bathroom. There were no stops between San Francisco and Yuba County. By the time they finally arrived she had soiled herself. Having just made the drive from San Francisco to Yuba County myself, and finding myself in desperate need of the McDonald's bathroom, it is easy to understand the older woman's dilemma.

Arriving at Yuba County Jail, according to our young friend, was massively confusing. No one would explain why they had been rounded up, where they were, how long they would be here. She watched from her cell as other prisoners were brought in, processed, given orange jumpsuits, and taken away. It seemed like the criminals got decent treatment and the immigrant detainees nothing. The next day she was told that she was going to be deported to Mexico. "I'm a Canadian citizen" she protested. (She is.) That didn't seem to matter to the person making the threat. On her third day in jail, according to our friend, she asked a nurse to let her use the phone. She called her parents, they hired a lawyer, and drove up to Yuba County Jail and got her out.

You'd have to hear her describe the three-day ordeal to understand how terrible the experience sounded. Fortunately for her, it only lasted a few days - for many in the ICE system, it can last months or years.

Six months and $10,000 in attorney fees and other costs later, she appeared before an immigration judge, represented by an attorney, and was granted permanent legal residency. She was one of the lucky ones.

After learning of our friend's story, we began our own journey, starting with a letter to Yuba County Jail and ending with a call from San Francisco field office ICE officer Craig Meyer, who arranged a time for Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice to visit the jail. In every communication with county and federal officials arranging this trip, we were treated with courtesy and professionalism. Professionalism, courtesy and pride were also the hallmarks of each person staffing the jail, most exemplified by the lieutenant who showed us around.

We were greeted by Lt. Jim Downs, born and raised in the area and on staff with the Sheriff's Department for many years. He let us know that several people from ICE were on their way, having gotten a bit lost due to the confusion between Yuba City and Yuba County. By 9:30am, a half-hour past our appointment time, we were being ushered into a conference room. In addition to Officer Meyer and the new deputy field director for the San Francisco office, recently moved from Miami, there was another man who was responsible for inspecting jails where ICE detainees were held. We learned that there were both unannounced and scheduled inspections, and according to the ICE officers, recently developed standards for housing detainees were so stringent that about 20% of the jails that had been housing ICE detainees lost their contracts.

Lt. Downs sat us down, introduced himself, and began telling us all about the prison. The things he was the most proud of were the three hot meals served to every prisoner every day (most prisons only have one or two hot meals a day - cold food served for the other one or two meal times). Another point of pride was that his jail offered prisoners twice as much outdoor exercise as required by law. The third was the availability of skilled medical and psychiatric staff, 20 hours out of every day.

He told us how he manages bed space in the jail. "Every morning I come in and see what we've got, then I let ICE know how many beds I can fill." The inmate population is kept pretty constant, with Lt. Downs having the discretion to release criminal detainees early if he needs the bed space. Like a hotel or apartment building, the business is to keep as many beds as possible filled - with paying beds from ICE representing money fed into the county, therefore good for the county and jail budget. Plus, according to Lt. Downs, immigration prisoners are much less trouble than the average criminal prisoner, less likely to be violent, more likely to be able to work in various jail jobs.

We spent a great deal of time asking questions about the intake procedure for immigration detainees. Lt. Downs was adamant that immigration detainees received the exact same treatment as criminal detainees. During our chat and throughout the morning he stressed that the most important thing that happens when people arrive at the prison is the process of determining where each person could safely be placed. Gang affiliation, sexual orientation, racial issues, anything that could cause a danger to the incoming prisoner or other members of the jail population needed to be determined before anyone could be moved from the intake area to one of the cells or dormitories. Lt. Downs also pointed out how incoming prisoners were asked about medical issues, ensuring that any medications needed were provided.

When we asked about language difficulties detainees might face, Lt. Downs explained that the jail contracts with a 24-hour language phone line. As soon as an intake officer realizes a person doesn't speak English, he or she can pick up that phone and within minutes a translator will work with the detainee and the officer.

After talking about the intake procedure for quite a while, Lt. Downs suggested that it would probably be easier to show us than to tell us much more. It was time for us to head into the jail. Lt. Downs led the way, reaching the first huge metal door. He pushed a button and announced his presence and his request to have that door slide open to escort us in. He pointed out where the cameras were and told us a bit about the control rooms where officers could see everything and had absolute control over all doors. Soon the first door slid open and we walked in. It slid closed behind us and another door opened. We were led into the place where prisoners arrive. A large loading dock is where busses and vans bring prisoners, who are then led into the first holding area. The brightly lit and immaculately clean room had a TV area with about 20 seats facing the TV. Behind that was a large reception desk where several officers with computers could interview prisoners. The process, according to Lt. Downs, was that those prisoners who "behaved themselves" and "played nice" could be shackled to the TV room chairs, awaiting their name to be called by the intake officers. Those who didn't play nice, or those whom the deputies were concerned about, could be placed in holding cells.

Concrete floor, room for maybe two or three people to sit on a concrete bench which was part of the wall, and a toilet awaited folks put into these cells. Putting five or more people in that kind of space, for more than a very short while, would make for a very unpleasant stay. There were also isolation cells, for folks that were mentally disturbed or potential suicides, that were even more stark than the other holding cells.

We repeatedly asked how long someone might be stuck in the intake process, and therefore in these types of cells. "Usually a few hours - maybe up to eight..... sometimes, rarely, up to two days." Lt. Downs told us. Samina Faheem, of American Muslim Voice, had heard from many Muslims who had been rounded up during the infamous INS all-males-above-a-certain-age registration debacle of 2002, asked whether the jail had simply become overwhelmed during that time, and kept far too many prisoners in that area for far too long. Lt. Downs said he remembered that time, and for his jail, it didn't seem to be a big deal.

How about phone calls, during this process, we wondered. There was one phone on the wall near the TV seats. Prisoners could make unlimited local calls, free, using those phones. Given that most of the people brought here are from miles and miles away, that's not a very useful service. Posted on the wall near the phone was a list of consulate phone numbers and bail bondsmen. "What about lawyer's phone numbers?" we asked. "Nope - we don't post any." In fact, according to Lt. Downs, it could be up to a week before an immigration prisoner got to see a lawyer, and that was only if they or their family could pay for one or find one that would work pro-bono. As to the phone calls, though, one has to wonder, how prisoners shackled to chairs near the TV, or those placed in the holding cells could possibly use the phone in the intake area without a deputy helping them reach that phone. It seems, therefore, that for whatever time it takes for a detainee to get through the intake process, ability to use a phone is unlikely.

Later, when assigned to dorms, there are phones available 24/7, unlimited local calling plus the ability to make collect or calling card calls.

Some positive notes about the intake area. It was spotless. The staff was polite, professional, courteous, and sharp. If processing typically worked as Lt. Downs had described, a person could get through it all with a certain amount of dignity. As soon as a prisoner had given information to the intake officers, a jumpsuit would be issued and the prisoner would be given an opportunity to take a shower. Immigration detainees got red jumpsuits, criminal detainees got orange jumpsuits. If meal time occurred while prisoners were awaiting intake, meals were brought to the intake area. While we stood there, a medical cart came through, a nurse handing medication to a prisoner being held in one of the isolation cells. The cart, which seemed loaded with massive amounts of similar looking packets of pills, came to mind later when we noticed how lethargic many of the prisoners seemed to be for 10:30am. How many of these prisoners are medicated, some of us wondered.

Next, we began visiting the mass-housing areas of the jail. We were ushered into a large fish-bowl style room. Windows all around, looking down into several dormitory areas. At the center of the fish bowl, a Sheriff's deputy sat at a control panel, pushing buttons to activate various cameras and at times speaking with prisoners through an intercom. These were male prisoners, in one dorm all immigration detainees, in others criminal detainees. These were 50-person dormitories, bunk beds filling much of the space, tables and chairs in other parts. Toilets and showers lined the walls and a TV played from above each dorm. Things were clean, orderly, and those men who were out of bed and moving around seemed comfortable. On one table a jigsaw puzzle sat partially assembled, on another some men played cards, at yet another an immigration officer was sitting and talking with a group of immigrants. The ICE officers recognized him, tapped the glass, and shared a wave.

We could see outside from here, into the recreation area Lt. Downs had talked about. Men were milling about out there, mostly seeming to just wander back and forth. They looked depressed. Some of us shared our own feelings of how wasteful it seemed, for human beings to be trapped like this, even in relatively comfortable conditions - though crowded, doing nothing for so many hours a day.

Perhaps sensing how we felt, Lt. Downs then brought us to a classroom, where Bob Lawson, a retired 80-year-old teacher, was giving geography lessons to three immigrant detainees. We interrupted their lesson and Bob gave us all a bit of a lecture about the kinds of things he taught various prisoners, and how important it was for the immigrants to learn English and the customs of America, if they wanted to stick around. Several of us stepped closer to the three students and began a conversation with them. The first man was from El Salvador. He had a green card but he had been convicted of a crime back in 1994. Back then, though, such a conviction didn't necessarily result in deportation. The Salvadoran man had recently gone to El Salvador for a visit but upon his return, he was taken into custody and faced deportation because of the 1994 conviction. Since September 11th and the 2003 creation of ICE, immigrants with any previous convictions are easy targets for deportation.

The second man was from China. He too had a green card, had been convicted of a crime in the 1990's, and had recently left the United States on a short trip, had come back, and landed in Yuba. Same story, different nationality. He faces deportation to China. His family is in this country and he does not know anyone in China. With tears in his eyes he said, Im scared...

The third man was from Iran, and had been in the United States many years. He had not committed any crime, but was undocumented, and is now facing deportation.... except for one glitch. There are some countries to which we will not or can not deport people. Unless travel documents are issued by the country to which a person is being deported, they can not be transported there. For many people, according to our ICE tour partners, that meant release back into US society. Typically, a person in such a situation lives in a kind of limbo, having to report to ICE once a month. However, if ICE feels that the immigrant is dangerous, he or she can be kept confined indefinitely. Every six months a person's case will be reviewed, but some people can find themselves trapped behind bars for many years.

All three men said they were well treated in the Yuba County Jail, and watching and listening to Bob Lawson working with these men was inspiring. As we left, there was an awkward pause. Are we allowed to touch these men who just touched our hearts? Our Episcopal Priest took care of answering that as he hugged each of the men.

Leaving the classroom, we ran into a woman Sheriff's Deputy who we were told was in charge of the jail's law library. She used to be a school-teacher and took special pride in helping prisoners with their legal needs. We spent about 20 minutes in that library. Well organized, comprehensive local and federal law books, it was certainly a good resource for those prisoners who might know what to ask for. Like many of the deputies we met, she was proud of the work she did, rightfully so. We wondered later after we had left, though, how prisoners gained access to the library - was it a privilege or a right, were they allowed to go into the library - or only ask to have the deputy get them something from there. Questions worth asking when we follow up or return for another visit.

The kitchen was another stop along our tour. Feeding 400 people three hot meals a day is quite a chore - and we got to see the immigrant detainees who work in the kitchen at one of their busiest times, filling the trays that were headed out to the dormitories and cells. Red beans and rice, mixed veggies, apple sauce, mixed salad and soup.... quite a meal. It smelled good and looked appetizing and Lt. Downs made sure we all got to feel the bottom of one of the trays to see how hot it was, and would stay, during the short trip to reach the prisoners. We got to meet the man in charge of the kitchen. Gregarious, professional, and proud of his kitchen - he was eager to show us everything and had a right to be proud.

After the kitchen we visited another set of dormitories, where more of the violent prisoners were housed. Though the same types of dorms we had seen before, things seemed more desolate, more tense. Though this was meant to be the last stop on our tour, we realized that we had not seen where the women were held. We asked to see the women's dorms which we had been told were in the "old part of the jail."

Lt. Downs explained that he wasn't allowed to go into those dorms without a female deputy - no male officer could enter female dorms without a female deputy. The school-teacher librarian deputy offered to take us. After opening the door, she warned the women that men were coming through. "Get dressed!" she shouted. This place was different from the male dorms. Here, there was just a long row of cells - each holding about 14 women, with bunk beds in one half of the cell and tables and chairs in the other. Many of the women were in bed, others sat at tables watching TV. Most seemed lifeless, broken, their clothes and hair like wet mops. One young woman walked over to front of the bars near us and asked who we were. We told her and then she shared her story. From the Dominican Republic, she had lived in America since she was 15. She'd worked and paid taxes the entire time, and raised a now 13-year old daughter (who is an American citizen). "I never bothered to do the papers to get my residency." she told us. Now they were deporting her to a country where she was born, but has no family. Her daughter will go with her. She said that America had given her many great gifts and she didn't regret living here and wasn't that sad about leaving. She certainly didn't want to spend much more time in this prison, away from her daughter. As we were leaving, she mentioned that we should watch the book stores for a cook book she had written, that was about to be published. It was special foods for children.

Later, when we all gathered for lunch and to talk about the day, we lamented the stupidity of throwing this woman out of our country, the waste of money incarcerating her, and the idiocy of having her locked up that way while she awaited deportation.

As we were about to leave the women's dorm, Lt. Downs said hello to a group of women in the last cell-block. "How are you?" he asked. "We'd be a lot better if you gave us back our TV." someone shouted. "Well, I told you that I didn't want to hear about any more fighting in here." he said. "OK, we get it." came the response. "Then you'll get your TV back, in a week, like I said." Walking out, one woman prisoner whispered to our school-teacher deputy "Get me out of here, will you?" She was a good worker, who had recently misbehaved and had been moved from a nicer cell-block into this one, she told us. "I'll work on it." the deputy whispered back.

We headed back into the briefing room to ask a few last questions. Some in our group were perplexed by the idea that people who had green cards, who had committed crimes and paid their dues for them in the past, a decade later ended up in jail. The ICE officers explained that when you are an immigrant, if you commit any crime at all you are eligible to be deported. Before September 11th, things were more relaxed. Since then, they've become more strict. Also perplexing was the idea that these prisoners were not entitled to legal representation. "They're not criminals," we were told. "They're immigrants." That means that they can get lawyers if they want, but must pay for those lawyers or find lawyers willing to work pro-bono. It took our young friend $10,000 in legal and other fees to get out of her mess. How many of the people we saw today would be able to come up with that kind of money? Few, we imagined.

"Can prisoners file complaints about conditions?" one of our group asked. "Of course!" Lt. Downs said, explaining that there were complaint forms available to prisoners. First, the direct supervisor for the area would review the grievance and if possible, settle the issue without going further up the chain of command. If the prisoner wasn't satisfied, it would be escalated within the jail chain of command all the way up to a review team outside the jail. "Do you get many complaints?" another of us asked. "No, not really." the Lieutenant smiled and said. Another in our group pointed out, though, that most third world people would never even consider complaining about people in authority. So to a third worlder, it is no surprise that the jail administration gets very few complaints from the immigrant detainees. Still, it was good to know that a procedure does exist. With those last questions, are visit was at an end.

We had spent nearly three hours at the Yuba County Jail and had been shown its best face. We were all astounded that Lt. Downs had spent that much time with us, and that the two ICE officers and the inspector had also spent those long hours with us. We felt that we had been given very complete access to the jail, and were especially glad that we'd been able to speak directly with prisoners in the classroom and in the women's dorms. It struck us that in addition to giving us this tour to answer our questions about prisoner conditions, this was also a sales job for the ICE officers. After all, they referred to the contract as "immigrant bed sales." It was a very good sales job, though none of us would want to shop there voluntarily. We thanked our host and headed to a nearby place to have lunch.

It was not what we'd expected, and it was. We could all see how, despite a process that can be decent and dignified for prisoner intake, it could turn into a horrible ordeal with people crammed into those holding cells for hours or even days. Though the housing once processed wasn't awful, the idea of being trapped in a dorm with up to 50 other people for 22 out of 24 hours a day seemed maddening. Though Lt. Downs and the deputies were incredibly professional and seemed to treat the prisoners decently, and the food was hot, good, and plentiful, most of the prisoners seemed limp, lifeless, depressed, and hopeless. One member of our group had spent time in jail, and felt that this one was a cut above. The ICE officers had also said that they'd seen many jails, and this one was better than most. Still, as we sat there having lunch, we all felt this huge sense of loss, the waste of human potential, the waste of money, the just-plain-wrongness of it all.

Our faith tells us to visit prisoners, a theme common to virtually every faith tradition. Some call us to "free the captives." "Well - what are we going to do?" Someone asked. We knew we needed time, each of us, to process what we had seen and heard, but she wanted to at least throw around some ideas for anything we could do to make a difference. Here are some of the ideas we came up with - you the reader, are encouraged to share your ideas too!

1. Meet with the ACLU and other rights groups to let them know what we learned.
2. Donate Korans and prayer rugs for Muslim prisoners.
3. Donate books, puzzles, and games.
4. Lobby to get 800 numbers (toll-free) posted near the phones for organizations like the National Lawyer's Guild and ACLU.
5. Work with local interfaith clergy to get more frequent visits to prisoners in the jail.
6. How do we address the major question of the increased funding of Detention Facilitiies knowing that when they are built, they will be filled?

ICE operates detention centers throughout the United States that detain illegal immigrants who are apprehended and placed into removal proceedings. Kellog, Brown and Root (KBR), the engineering and construction subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation, released a press statement on January 24, 2006 that the company had been awarded a no-bid contingency contract from the Department of Homeland Security to support its Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the event of an emergency. The maximum total value of the contract is $385 million and consists of a 1-year base period with four 1-year options. KBR held the previous ICE contract from 2000 through 2005. The contract provides for establishing temporary detention and processing capabilities to expand existing ICE Detention and Removal Operations Program facilities in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs. The contract may also provide migrant detention support to other government organizations in the event of an immigration emergency, as well as the development of a plan to react to a national emergency, such as a natural disaster, the company said.

AUTHOR: This story was written by Craig Wiesner, MVPJ steering committee. The group visiting the jail was made up of Craig, Rev. Diana Gibson, Rev. Katie Goetz, Fr. John Butcher, Ed Ehmke (Pax Christi), and Samina Faheem (American Muslim Voice).

NOTE: Photo at beginning of story courtesy of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: When this story was first written, we were under the impression that the time our young friend spent in a freezing cell with no clothing was at the Yuba County Jail. In fact, as the story has been corrected above, that most difficult time was at the San Francisco ICE facility. We plan to follow up with ICE to see if we'll be permitted to visit their facility in San Francisco.

UPDATE JULY 2007 - Rep. Anna Eshoo has intervened with ICE to arrange for us to visit the SF facility. We'll post another story about that soon.

Meanwhile, the NY Times has reported that at least 62 people have died since 2004 while being held at ICE-contract jail facilities.

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