By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
MARYSVILLE – The Sheriff at the Yuba County Jail ICE Detention Facility here is “presiding over a humanitarian catastrophe,” charged immigrant rights advocates this past holiday weekend, claiming more than 70 people in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19, including three in ICE custody and 13 staff.
Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson runs the facility, which has reportedly been hit with a major outbreak over the past few weeks, according to information provided by several organizations, including Pangea Legal, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and Centro Legal.
They claim those detained at the facility cannot “socially distance…forced to use the same cloth masks for months, and (are) being deprived (of) cleaning and hygiene supplies such as soap and cleaning products (and Jail officials have continued to move people between housing units, exacerbating the likelihood of exposure to the virus.”
A group called “Faithful Friends” has contacted jail officials and offered to donate hundreds of KN95 or disposable masks for those detained, and staff. They haven’t heard back from the jail.
“Some in ICE custody have been placed in punitive 23-hour lockdown, including those who are in medical isolation. The first immigrants in ICE custody to contract the virus both reported that their medical isolation cells had not been cleaned prior to their arrival, with food, hair, fingernails, and dirt littered about,” according to the support groups.
They said detainees who tested positive reported it took days to receive cleaning materials before they were forced to clean their own cells, and share a bathroom. One 59-year-old man, diabetic Ruperto Robles, was “not even informed of his own COVID-positive status for almost 48 hours,” supporters said.
Currently, the jail houses 21 ICE detainees, including some who are elderly or medically “vulnerable” to the virus. ICE is holding them in “civil detention” although, explain supporters, ICE has the discretion to release them.
The Yuba County Jail has been the target of demonstrations for several years from supporters in the surrounding area, Bay Area and Sacramento. And immigrants have staged a series of hunger strike to protest conditions and what they call “systemic mistreatment and the jail’s and ICE’s mishandling of the threat posed by COVID.”
Yuba County Jail has a long history of medical neglect – it has been under a court order, meant to improve and monitor conditions, for more than 40 years.
“The Yuba County Sheriff has done little to keep the facility safe or sanitary, and ICE has refused to act within its power to release individuals and/or to hold the jail accountable,” supporters said the day before Christmas.
They also note that while many California communities have ended multiple contracts with ICE in the last five years – including Sacramento, Contra Costa, and Orange – Yuba County doubled down by agreeing to a controversial contract with ICE through 2099.
ICE detainees have made the following urgent demands to the jail:
“Free everyone in ICE custody. provide N-95 Masks to all those in custody immediately, promptly communicate updates about COVID-19 spread to community members in ICE custody, ensure regular, immediate communication between ICE and Yuba County Jail, cease transfers between housing units, reduce population so that people can actually socially distance, honor legal and family calls at their scheduled times and allow for an independent inspector to conduct unannounced inspections of conditions.”
Community members and family said they that if ICE does release the detainees, they will them transportation, hotel rooms, and other support.
About mid-year, a U.S. District Judge granted an emergency order to require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to consider releasing detainees from California’s two ICE holding facilities because “irreparable harm” may come to detainees from COVID-19, conditions worsened.
Judge Vince Chhabria, in that San Francisco Northern District case, said that “ICE must take to ensure social distancing and other protections for the people who remain detained at the facilities…Because time is of the essence,” acknowledging the “public health threat currently posed by crowded detainee populations and ICE’s failure to respond.”
In May, Juan Jose Erazo Herrera, detained more than two years waiting for his case to be heard , reportedly has a weakened immune system. He was homeless in El Salvador, said friends, and then became “involved” with gangs, spending time in county jail and juvenile detention, and transferred to ICE.
Supporters said the jail retaliated against the youth when he started his hunger strike May 10, putting him into medical segregation in a freezing room. He released this statement as he began the strike:
“We are more exposed to the illness here than we were before. I’ve been locked up a long time…ICE is exposing me to this illness, and they just don’t care. ICE says we’re a danger to society, and that we’re protected from the disease. We aren’t a danger; we are in danger. We’re in danger here because we could get sick at any moment and they (are) putting us in greater risk.
“For me, deciding to go on hunger strike isn’t just for me. I’m doing it for everyone here. My voice isn’t just for me. I want people to realize that this just isn’t me and that everyone here is in danger. Here, and in Mesa Verde. We’re not safe.”
“His action, like the actions of hunger strikers across the nation, brings attention to the levels of fear and desperation and the urgent need to release immigrants in detention from jails and prisons given the horrific risk of contracting COVID-19 in crowded and unsafe conditions,” said supporters, who held a 24 hour overnight vigil at the Yuba Jail.
Like most jails, and prisons, health officials have been saying the institutions are – like nursing homes – at a serious risk for the rapid spread of the virus because most live in overcrowded dorms where they sleep and eat within feet of each other with no chance to maintain social distancing.
“All of this only increases the possibility that COVID-19 will enter the facility. Given the long-term problems with medical care and access…we do not believe that individuals who are ill will be afforded proper medical care or treatment. Clearly, the facility has not taken the appropriate steps to ensure that the health and safety of individuals inside the Jail,” charged The California Committee for Immigrant Liberation.
In a letter to officials in May, the group said: “We urge you to take action before this facility becomes a site of mass infection and claims the lives of those detained, while overwhelming the medical resources of the Marysville community in which this facility is located.”
Advocates detailed a multitude of ways in which the issue of COVID-19 can be addressed in immigrant detention, including:
1. ICE exercising discretion to release individuals from these facilities.
2. Calling for moratorium on the transfer of individuals from state custody to ICE detention, and to state and local collaborations with ICE.
3.) State intervention to halt the expansion of private detention facilities.
4.) Rigorous intervention, inspection, and oversight by local, state, and federal officials.
5.) Legal action to hold public and private operators accountable for their negligence and misconduct
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