By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
MARYSVILLE – Nearly 50 “socially-distanced” vehicles from throughout Northern California loudly and persistently honked car horns as they circled the controversial Yuba County Jail here Tuesday for more than an hour, calling for the immediate release of ICE detainees.
The demonstration drew the attention of local police, who at one point threatened to cite them for violating an obscure vehicle code. But car demonstrators continued to protest in what is becoming COVID-19 acceptable manner. A similar car protest for immigrant ICE detainees was held at the State Capitol a week ago.
Organizers called the car rally, like other recent actions held throughout the state, an “essential and COVID-19-safe action in which participants will maintain proper social distance in order to protect themselves and others. “
The jail is a ripe target. Not only does the controversial facility house about 150 immigrants awaiting deportation hearings by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but it’s been under court orders for years because of “inhumane” conditions, according to immigration advocates.
The subject of grand jury investigations because of poor conditions, the jail, as of the end of March, had 150 ICE detainees, including nine female ICE detainees and 141 male ICE detainees. ICE detainee bed capacity is about 220, and ICE detainees are co-mingled with local detainees in cells or dormitory style housing. Total jail capacity is about 400.
And, there is the rumor that at least one inmate or detainee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 that the jail hasn’t confirmed. However, the sheriff of the Yuba County Jail did ask within the past few days online for 1,000 donated face coverings for his jail to protect people against COVID-19, THE VANGUARD has learned.
Sheriff Wendell Anderson requested the masks from non-profit mask makers, said the sources, for a facility that has been plagued by issues of poor sanitation, including a lack of soap – a series of hunger strikes have been held at the facility over the last year or so because of inhumane conditions.
”The last place you want to be in a global pandemic is a U.S. concentration camp,” said Satsuki Ina, survivor of U.S. mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, which is part of the Coalition protesting by car Tuesday.
The Coalition to Free Everyone in Yuba County ICE Detention, comprising a diverse group of regional organizations, sponsored the car rally, claiming that “the matter is urgent because Yuba County Jail is at high risk of an imminent outbreak of COVID-19 due to close confinement, filthy conditions, a lack of hygiene supplies including soap, and nonexistent or inadequate medical care.”
Citing the bad conditions, federal Judge Maxine Chesney on April 8 ordered the release of four persons in custody at the Yuba County and Mesa Verde detention centers. “It is undisputed that the housing units, meal area, and temperature checks do not comply with social distancing orders. None of the detained people are provided masks and most of the jail staff do not wear masks,” she noted in her order.
Nationwide there have already been 10 reported deaths of persons in immigration custody in the past six months alone, and at least 160 immigration officers have tested positive for COVID-19.
The coalition seeks the immediate release of all who are detained by ICE at Yuba County Jail, not just those covered by the April 8 order – for the lives and safety of those held there, the staff, as well as the general public.
The fact that participants are taking this action despite the ongoing pandemic and shelter-in-place orders is a testament to the essential and urgent nature of the matter.
The action also included an email campaign and photo challenge to let the supervisors, sheriff and others in Yuba County know that the contract needs to be cancelled and people on ICE holds have to be released now, especially in light of the contagious nature of COVID-19.
One of those at the car protest Tuesday was Rhonda Rios Kravitz from Campaign for Immigrant Detention Reform, who, in a letter to Anderson, Jail Captain Allan Garza and ICE assistant director David Jennings late Friday, criticized the request.
“Masks – particularly home-made or non-N95 masks – are not in any way adequate to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, as asserted by the World Health Organization. The only effective way to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 at Yuba County Jail amid a worldwide pandemic is to release individuals held there,” she wrote.
“Reducing the population immediately limits the number of people in detention, along with staff, who can contract the disease. It also helps enable the separation of those who remain detained, a critical step to contain this virus and one that is impossible with a full or somewhat-full jail,” Rios Kravitz insisted, noting that COVID-19 spreads quickly in jails.
“The stakes are high, and lives are on the line at Yuba County Jail,” she added, charging that the jail has “limited medical care and basic necessities – including a reported inadequate supply of soap.”
Rios Kravitz said Campaign for Immigrant Detention Reform not only recommends the release from ICE custody of ICE detainees because they haven’t committed a crime, but also release people older than 50, immuno-compromised, pregnant, and/or who have underlying conditions.
Releasing “at-risk inmates who are nonviolent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement as recommended by Attorney General Barr to the Bureau of Prisons…people who are nearing the end of their sentences (with less than 60 days)” might be a good idea, she said.
And, although immigrant rights groups seek release of ICE detainees at Yuba County Jail, Rios Kravitz peppered the Yuba County officials with a series of questions about the requested masks in her letter.
“Masks are to prevent spread by asymptomatic persons of COVID-19. How are you testing to make sure people are asymptomatic and/or may test positive for the disease? How many people, including people in detention and employees, have tested positive for COVID-19 (at the jail)?”
Rios Kravitz also asked if the jail has asked county, state or federal sources, including ICE, FEMA and DHS for masks.
She also queried the jail officials as to whether they are checking the temperatures of incarcerated, what “best practices” for sanitation and social distancing are in use, and whether the jail has considered “eliminating the dormitory living quarters” where people jailed cannot social distance the recommended six feet.
Finally, the letter asked jail officials how they will ”prevent people in detention from hiding symptoms out of fear of being transferred into solitary confinement and/or quarantined to be isolated from others,” and if the masks arrive, “how will you ensure their cleanliness (and) will there be a priority for who is issued the masks?”
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9