By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
MARYSVILLE – Yuba County Jail – the scene of hunger strikes and rallies protesting inhumane conditions and mistreatment of immigrants housed here – is one of two ICE detention centers in California targeted in a federal lawsuit calling for the immediate release of 13 immigrants especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
The controversial Yuba County facility and the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield are the subjects of the lawsuit announced Wednesday by the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Lakin & Wille LLP.
According to the ACLU, “Because of their advanced age and underlying medical conditions, the 13 plaintiffs are especially vulnerable to the potentially fatal COVID-19 infection while they are confined in crowded and unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not possible.”
“This action is being filed in the midst of a rapidly evolving global pandemic of frightening proportions, by immigrants whose continued civil detention by the San Francisco Field Office (of) U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (‘ICE’) places them at extraordinary risk of infection, illness, and death,” according to the federal pleadings.
“The clock is ticking. It is effectively impossible for Plaintiffs to protect themselves against COVID-19 infection in the two immigration detention centers…Each of the Plaintiffs is of advanced
age and/or suffers underlying health conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to severe and rapidly progressing effects of COVID-19, including death,” the lawsuit charges.
Detainee lawyers said the plaintiffs have been refused a “humanitarian” release and, as the lawsuit argues, the plaintiffs “remain detained with the general population in both facilities, sleeping in bunks within arms-reach of other detainees and with no choice but to use shared communal dining, bathing, and recreation areas.”
“I have seen some of the officers at the Mesa Verde detention center coughing and not wearing masks. They also keep coming to work. I am worried how this will affect me,” said lead plaintiff Sofia Bahena Ortuno, a 64-year-old farmworker who suffers from hypothyroidism and diabetes. The grandmother of six has been detained in Mesa Verde Detention Center since October when she was arrested during an ICE traffic stop.
Yuba County Jail detainee Ricardo Vasquez Cruz, another plaintiff in the case, is 45 years old, suffers from diabetes, gout, gastritis, and high blood pressure, and had tuberculosis in 2018. He and the detainees in his pod at the Yuba County Jail are forced to clean their own area, but are not given appropriate supplies. He is afraid of every surface he touches, especially because new detainees are still being brought in.
Autumn Gonzalez, an organizer with NorCal Resist in California said the “crowded and unsanitary conditions at the Yuba County Jail are a ticking time bomb.
“Even if ICE and the Jail don’t care about the health of the detained people, you would think they could consider the health of their own employees, who are also at huge risk. There are elderly people in that facility. There are people with auto-immune conditions. This is life or death, and ICE appears to be comfortable with letting a large number of people die. Yuba County seems OK with going along with that, as long as they get paid,” Gonzalez said.
“I think we should all be profoundly disturbed that on so many levels, from President on down, our government is telling us that people matter less than profit, and some people’s lives do not matter at all. The moral bankruptcy of our political system, our justice system, our immigration system, is laid bare during this pandemic.
“It’s time for all of us who are involved in advocacy and organizing around these issues to start thinking critically about how we stop trying to negotiate with these systems and how we take action to build something new,” she said.
A frequent critic of the Yuba County Jail, Rhonda Rios Kravitz, Dean Emerita, Sacramento City College and the Sacramento Immigration Coalition and Coalition for Immigrant Detention Reform, said: “It is not a matter of if, but when, coronavirus shows up in our courts, jails, detention centers, prisons, and other places where criminal and immigration systems occur. The substantial risk of serious harm poses an unreasonable risk of serious damage to prisoners’ health and safety where any preventable death is a death too many.
“The threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in immigration detention facilities like the one in Yuba County Jail is dire and imminent—California’s jails and prisons cannot guarantee the health and safety of detained individuals. Social distancing is nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities, if it can be achieved at all. The jails must release as many people possible while still maintaining the safety of our communities,” she said.
Rios Kravitz said the guards are not sympathetic at Yuba County Jail, explaining:
“People in detention at the Yuba County Jail are regularly exposed to unsanitary conditions and denied hygienic supplies. The mother of a son in the Yuba County Jail emailed me today, saying, ‘The health staff are not responsive and ill-equipped to handle day to day issues, never mind any pandemic outbreak. The guards are callous and, while they are now wearing gloves, they don’t change them and have faked coughing and wiped their nose in front of sick inmates, causing them alarm and fear.’”
Kalin Kipling-Mojaddedi, another coalition member and communications manager with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacramento Valley/Central California (CAIR-SV/CC), described vulnerable individuals held in ICE detention as “like sitting ducks amid this outbreak.
“Viruses know no bounds nor are they confined to jail cells; if action isn’t taken now to protect those who are locked up, any outbreak will affect not just those in detainment, but the wider community. ICE must immediately enact a plan to release immigrants from detention—for immigrants’ safety and the safety of our communities as a whole.
“We can’t overstate how critical it is for ICE to act with urgency and release immigrants held in detention centers. The U.S. has more people behind bars per capita than any other nation, and the health and well-being of every person in jail, prison or camps nationwide is at risk as COVID-19 continues to spread,” Kipling-Mojaddedi added.
“From all the evidence we have seen, ICE is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of individuals in its custody. ICE should exercise its existing discretion to release people with serious medical conditions from detention for humanitarian reasons,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California.
“There is no valid justification for locking up vulnerable immigrants and putting their lives at risk,” said Manohar Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender. “This is an unprecedented crisis that compels us to take swift action, before it’s too late.
Judah Lakin, with Lakin & Wille, issued the following statement: “ICE has proven time and again, even under the best of circumstances, that it is not capable of protecting the health and safety of incarcerated individuals. These are extraordinary circumstances and public health experts around the country have rung the warning bell that the only way to protect incarcerated individuals, as well as broader community, is to depopulate jails and prisons. These plaintiffs all have risk factors that place them at an increased risk of serious harm if they contract COVID-19 and should be released immediately.”
And, Bree Bernwanger, a senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, issued the following statement: “Locking up immigrants in for-profit prisons and county jails has always been senseless, cruel, and dangerous. Now, it looks to be deadly on a massive scale. We will not stop until ICE finally prioritizes human life over its racist and anti-immigrant agenda and releases our plaintiffs from detention under conditions that could kill them.”
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