Immigration and detention officials canceled visits at the Etowah County Detention Center following a protest calling for the facility’s closure and the abolition of immigration detention.
Freedom For Immigrants (FFI), a nonprofit immigrant rights group, has organized visitation projects with over 4,500 volunteers from local groups like the Etowah Visitation Project (EVP). The visitation projects exist at 69 prisons and jails in 26 states.
FFI responded to the canceled visits by issuing a cease and desist letter demanding reinstatement in time for the holidays.
On November 3, volunteers with the EVP left their regularly scheduled visits with detainees and joined a group of around 50-60 people outside for a rally. The Shut Down Etowah Campaign, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Detention Watch Network, and other local and national organizations participated in the action.
Two days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suspended the volunteer visits indefinitely.
Etowah County Detention Center Captain Mike O’Bryant informed volunteer coordinators from FFI that the two large buses which brought protesters to the facility played a role in the decision.
According to FFI, O’Bryant said “it had gotten to be too much” and that he would “put the brakes on [the visitation program] for a while.” This included barring the organization from distributing Christmas presents to detainees as it had in prior years.
O’Bryant also refused a meeting and ignored subsequent communications from FFI trying to restore their access to detainees.
A volunteer attempted to schedule a visit independently but was denied by O’Bryant, who indicated individuals were blacklisted from the facility for the foreseeable future.
Advocates from FFI work with a network of grassroots activists to pair detained people with volunteers, who they can visit for the permitted 20-minute visitation period.
These visits are life-saving for many detainees because they are not permitted to go outside and have been forcibly separated from family and friends.
The loneliness and isolation of this detention scheme means that canceling the visitation program comes with especially severe negative emotional consequences for detainees. Most detainees that have connections with family and friends don’t have any near the facility to visit them.
The ECDC policy, published on the sheriff’s website, states that detained people are “solely responsible for scheduling a visit and notifying family and friends of the date and time of the visit by U.S. mail or by phone.” This presents a significant obstacle to securing visits partly because of the exorbitant cost of phone calls at the facility at around 21 cents-per-minute.
Additionally, visitors can only see one detainee per day, and importantly, all visits are non-contact and held over a video visitation platform.
FFI argues ECDC—well–known for its horrendous conditions—has one of the most restrictive visitation policies for immigration detention facilities in the nation. Advocates argue it violates not only the First Amendment but ICE’s own facility standards for visitation, which state facilities are “encouraged to provide opportunities for both contact and non-contact visitation.“
In addition to volunteer visits, FFI operates the free and confidential National Immigration Detention Hotline for detainees. They receive around 14,000 calls per month, providing detainees with an independent avenue to report abuse, find resources, and build connections with people outside the prison walls.
Both the hotline and the visitation program act as a check against law enforcement abuses and negligence, and for that reason, ICE has repeatedly interfered with both.
FFI filed a federal lawsuit on December 10 to reinstate the hotline because ICE shut it down soon after it was featured in a new episode of Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” this year.
Additionally, ICE has disrupted the visitation programs at least seven times since 2013, suspending or terminating visits without warning or justification. They’ve directly retaliated against actions taken by FFI-affiliated organizers.
In 2013, ICE suspended the program after FFI co-founder Christina Fialho wrote about the mistreatment and verbal abuse of gay and transgender detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail in California. Within 48 hours of publishing articles on the subject at the Huffington Post, volunteer visitation programs at multiple facilities were suspended without further notice and ICE blacklisted visitors affiliated with the group.
ICE officials told FFI that suspension was in response to their public criticisms and demanded censorship from Fialho.
In 2015, FFI filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security. It detailed abuses, such as physical assaults to coerce detainees into signing removal documents and violations of medical and mental health standards. Less than two weeks later, ICE canceled the project’s visitations for over a month.