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Immigrant Detainees Languish in Notorious Etowah County Detention Center

The Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, houses immigration detainees along with county inmates. The facility, which on any given day houses over 300 immigrants, is notorious for poor conditions. It is hours away from any immigration court or international airport , despite only housing people who have final orders of removal from the United States. Many of the detainees have been held here for months, if not years.

Etowah should be closed for two reasons. First, the facility is inappropriate for civil detention. It is a high security jail designed to hold dangerous criminals serving their jail sentences, not for civil offenders awaiting removal from the United States. Second, many of the detainees held at this facility cannot be removed from the United States, despite having been ordered removed, since they are victims of torture or persecution, or because the U.S. does not have an extradition agreement with the home country. The federal government should not ask taxpayers to foot the bill for this inhumane and unnecessary detention.

How We Got Here:

In 2010, after years of controversy around Etowah’s dreadful conditions, the Obama administration promised to move toward a more civil form of detention by building newer, better facilities located closer to detainees’ homes and families, to legal service providers and to good medical care. As a result, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) was set to terminate its contract with the facility and stop detaining immigrants there.

 Realizing that the loss of the only ICE contract in Alabama would mean the loss of dozens of jobs and $5.2 million in revenue for the county, local officials went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied federal lawmakers to renew the contract. Federal officials succumbed to this pressure, and in April 2011, ICE renewed its contract with Etowah, to hold up to 325 immigrants there.

The jail has three units dedicated to housing civil detainees. These are large two-story rooms with tiny cells around the sides. Each cell holds two detainees, and the open space has metal tables and an exposed bathroom and shower area. Each large unit houses about 130 detainees. The only access detainees have to the outside is a small cement area that has a tiny grate in one corner of the ceiling that allows a bit of sunlight to enter. Being in Alabama, this “outdoor” space is hot, humid and suffocating.

The only way a detainee can see family, friends or an attorney is through a small television screen—never in person. The food is reportedly terrible (see letter, at end of this blog). Detainees who do not speak English must rely on hand gestures and the best guesses of medical professionals tasked with providing mental and physical health care. The detainees are languishing in conditions that would reduce most of us to depression within a few days, but many are told upon arrival that they will be spending at least six months there. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court held that indefinite detention of unremovable immigrants (immigrants who have been ordered deported but have nowhere to go) under the plenary power doctrine was subject to Constitutional limitations. To justify detention of immigrants for a period longer than six months, the government was required to show that removal would occur in the foreseeable future, or to prove other special circumstances. It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not mandate the government to detain a person for six months before releasing him or her under an order of supervision; it allows that as the maximum.

During our recent visit to Etowah, the Women’s Refugee Commission interviewed many detainees who were told upon entering the facility that they would have to be there for six months to “wait out” their time for release. This was despite the fact that immigration officials knew the government could not send them back to their home country and recognized the inevitably of their eventual release. Some men we interviewed had been there longer than six months, but did not have access to an attorney who could help them mount a legal challenge to this unconstitutional detention.

Due to the remote location of the facility, detainees do not have access to free or low-cost attorneys who can guide them through the complex requirements they must meet in order to be released after six months. Moreover, detainees cannot even be removed directly from this facility because it is not near an international airport. Although the government is ostensibly in the process of trying to deport all of the detainees held there, each detainee will need to be transferred to another facility before actually being removed from the United States.

By holding detainees in Etowah, the U.S. government is creating a purgatory-type of situation for the detainees. Officials are not releasing them using alternatives to detention programs, but they can’t effectuate their removal either. The detainees are languishing in a legal no-man’s land at taxpayer expense. The U.S. government seems to be explicitly using Etowah as a facility to hold immigrants it knows it will not be able to remove quickly, if at all, from the United States and with the full knowledge and expectation they will eventually be released, to be reunified with family here in the U.S..

This use of immigration detention is not acceptable and even less so after the Obama administration’s promise to improve immigration detention conditions by creating the kind of civil conditions to which administrative detainees are entitled, rather than the punitive, criminal conditions to which they are currently subjected.

In this time of economic crisis, when government spending is being scrutinized, officials need to take a look at the immigration detention system and determine if it is an appropriate way to spend taxpayers’ money.

Read a letter a detainee sent us about the inadequate food at the detention center.

A detainee outlines the dire conditions at the Etowah detention center.