Etowah County Alabama is under contract with the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house up to 350 male immigrants at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, AL. The facility also serves as the county jail for over 500 inmates. The two populations are housed in separate units.
Etowah Visitation Project
The Etowah Visitation Project is a member group of Freedom for Immigrants formerly known as CIVIC (Community Initiatives for visiting Immigrants in Confinement), a national network which visits and monitors approximately 55 immigrant prisons in 23 states. Through visits and/or letters, we connect with immigrants who are being detained in the Etowah County Detention Center while they await immigration hearings or deportations. Our objective is to be there as friends and listeners open to people of all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We bear witness to the suffering and to the enormous strength and resilience of character that many of the men possess.
The immigrant men held in detention are under the administration of ICE. They are NOT being held for criminal acts (Prison time for criminal offenses, if any, has already been served prior to immigrant detention). They are being held for immigration violations (some for the “crime” of seeking asylum), and their cases are at various stages. Some have been held for many months or years.
The stories of the men in detention are as varied as their personalities and their nationalities, with many countries of origin represented in the population. Many were brought here as young children and know no other country; many married and have US citizen children; many are relatively recent arrivals who came as asylum-seekers and after presenting themselves at the border, were immediately placed in detention centers. They are prisoners in our midst far away from home, family and friends, subject to being removed at any time to another detention facility or to their country of origin. Most have limited or no resources and no access to legal support.
Conditions at ECDC and state law of Alabama
Conditions at ECDC are particularly difficult for the entire population of inmates, both county and those in ICE custody. There is no outdoor recreation and prisoners can go for months or years without exposure to the sun. All prisoners experience the impact of poor food and the ongoing practice of using donated and expired food to feed prisoners. Inmates have reported food poisoning, weight loss, and severe hunger. Families suffer because they are left with the burden of putting money into commissary accounts to supplement their loved ones’ diet. Immigrant men often lack resources to purchase supplementary food.
Alabama sheriffs have been able to profit from the prisoners they incarcerate. The practice of pocketing “unused” food money allocated to feed prisoners was codified in state law in 1939. This practice and the lack of transparency on the part of Alabama sheriffs has been the subject of intense investigation in recent years by Alabama journalists and human and legal rights organizations such as Alabama Appleseed, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
One of the most egregious examples of a sheriff participating in the practice of taking food funds for his personal use was Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etowah County, who left office in January 2019. Over a three year period he took over $750K from the food money account for his personal use. Other Alabama sheriffs have engaged in this practice, with many others in the state refusing to comply with public records requests concerning their use of food funds.
Action is underway in Alabama to change the law which allows sheriffs to personally benefit from jail food funds. SB228, the Jail food funding bill sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is currently making its way through the Alabama state legislature. This bill passed in the state Senate on April 16, 2019. If passed by the State House of Representatives and signed by the Governor, the new law will clarify that sheriffs are not personally responsible for feeding prisoners in their care. It will require accountability on part of sheriffs that funds will be used for feeding prisoners, with unspent balances carried forward to the next year. It will place limitations on how carryover funds may be spent (no more that 25% of the balance permitted to be used for jail operation or other law enforcement purposes). The law will also provide sheriffs more money to feed inmates, increasing the (already low) daily allowance from $1.75 to $2.25 with 2% increases each year.
As a minimum, a change in Alabama state law will provide a new baseline that should positively impact the quality and quantity of food provided to county inmates throughout Alabama. The bill is supported by the Alabama Sheriff’s Association.
In addition to visitations, the EVP provides Christmas packages each December to all men in immigrant detention. Packages include protein bars, crackers, nuts, cookies, candies, beef jerky, writing tablets, puzzles, pens, hygiene items, tooth brushes and tooth paste. Provided underwear includes t-shirts, undershorts, and socks for all men. EVP meets individual requests on occasion such as shoes, flash drives, art supplies and money for commissary accounts (for commissary items and phone calls). Supplies also include books, new and used.
For more information about the Etowah Visitation Project, please see the Etowah Visitation Project face book page or contact Katherine Weathers, firstname.lastname@example.org.
See https://www.freedomforimmigrants.org for more information about our parent organization and how you can volunteer to support men, women, and families in detention in your own communities. Donations can be made at: The Interfaith Mission Service select pay pal or credit card. 701 Andrew Jackson Way, NE, Huntsville, AL. 35801.
Katherine Weathers works with the Etowah Visitation Project.
Hy Thurman is a member of the Young Patriot Organization.