by Cindy Knoebel
For the last six years, Katherine Weathers has been making the 90-minute drive to visit detained immigrants at the Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC) in Gadsden, AL. Now that ICE has suspended visits to detention centers, she’s more worried than ever about the hundreds locked inside who are at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. “I feel so disconnected from the men,” she told me when we spoke in late April.
"They’re having their temperature taken, and then given over the counter medicine for fever or allergies."
Mrs. Weathers reports that over 141 cases of COVID-19 have been reported throughout the county with 10 confirmed deaths. ICE has recognized one case of COVID-19 inside ECDC. “From all the reports we’re getting from people on the inside, they’re having their temperature taken, and then given over the counter medicine for fever or allergies. And they’re still funneling people in and out of there, and every time they move people it just spreads terror.” Recently, she told me, she received an email from a detained man confirming that two units at the facility have been combined into one.
Her efforts to develop the Etowah Visitation Project began in November of 2013. After trying unsuccessfully to launch a visitation group, she reached out to Freedom for Immigrants (FFI). “Christina Mansfield managed to negotiate with the facility and helped us establish the program,” she says. Visits to the facility began the following year. But the program has been shut down twice, first in 2015 after FFI filed a formal complaint alleging widespread medical neglect, inadequate and rotten food at the facility, as well as specific instances of abuse by officials from ICE and the Etowah county sheriff’s office. Visits by the group were allowed to resume later that year after legal intervention by Southern Poverty Law Center, together with Freedom for Immigrants.
Then, on November 5, 2019, the group was shut down again.
"We were getting a lot of hostility and negative feedback.”
“I remember getting the call from my contact at Etowah telling me they were suspending our visits,” Mrs. Weather says. Two days earlier, on November 3, Detention Watch Network, in collaboration with the Adelanto Alabama Worker Center and the Shutdown Etowah campaign, had visited the facility and held a protest outside. “The shutdown was totally retaliatory,” she claims. “We tried to use the general policies for visits by scheduling individual visits online, but all our requests were refused. They also told us we couldn’t send Christmas presents.” The group put together a big letter writing campaign at Christmas, but Mrs. Weathers says that over half the letters weren’t delivered. “We were getting a lot of hostility and negative feedback,” she recalls.
Mrs. Weathers notes the group was allowed to make a few visits in mid-December, then, she says, “They came down hard on us in January. We asked them to provide sign-up sheets for people at Etowah to request visits, and they refused.”
In February, they tried to resume visits only to learn that visitation policies had changed. “Before last November, each one of our visitors could visit three people. With five volunteers, we could visit up to fifteen individuals. But now we were limited to just one visit. I did that in February. An hour and half drive and I was only allowed to visit one person.”
Then policies changed again. Now, only online visits are allowed. “I signed up for one,” Mrs. Weathers recalls. “It wasn’t easy to register, but I did get a visit approved, a time set last Sunday [April 19].” But, she adds, “It didn’t happen.”
"They have a new system that isn’t working and the company isn’t answering the phone or answering email.”
She continues, “I logged in. I had the screen open, and then it said to click on the button to start the visit and nothing happened. And the facility has no experience with new system, so they couldn’t help at all. I was so disappointed. So that’s where we are right now: they have a new system that isn’t working and the company isn’t answering the phone or answering email.”
The Gadsden facility has a troubled history, as detailed in an April 12 article in The Intercept. The article also includes interviews with several people detained at Etowah, including one with a man who, in a March 20th cellphone video obtained by The Intercept, threatened to jump to his death from a second story railing with a bedsheet tied around his neck.
In an April 1st sworn declaration, Jessica Myers Vosburgh, the Executive and Legal Director of Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a worker and immigrant rights organization based in Birmingham, AL, detailed multiple complaints from clients.
"There is no doctor on site, and detainees often have to put in multiple requests and wait days or weeks to see a nurse or other medical professional."
“Detainees do not have access to basic cleaning supplies to maintain personal hygiene, keep their living and communal spaces clean, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases within the jail,” the complaint states. And: “There is a separate medical unit inside of the jail. There is no doctor on site, and detainees often have to put in multiple requests and wait days or weeks to see a nurse or other medical professional. In that event that facility medical staff conclude that surgery, a specialist visit, or other off-site medical care is required, it often takes many months before a detained person receives that care.”
More recently, on April 27, the Adelante Alabama Worker Center, together with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights, petitioned a judge for the release of 18 individuals at ECDC with compromised immune systems. “Plaintiffs fear for their lives because they have medical conditions,” the petition states. “And for good reason: they are trapped in a facility that can only be described as a breeding ground for the disease.”
"They crossed the border because they wanted to come to this country for a better life. They had no idea they’d be put in prison.”
When asked what she’s heard about conditions at ECDC, Mrs. Weathers reports there isn’t enough soap and the facility isn’t clean. In addition, she says, “There is no access to the outdoors. The food is marginal, though they claim it meets the standards in terms of calories, etc. But a lot of these men are young, and they need more calories.” She adds, “Many of them are asylum seekers. They crossed the border because they wanted to come to this country for a better life. They had no idea they’d be put in prison.”
She continues, “I just think it’s got to be a really hard place for these people to be … they hope their cases will be resolved, but I think the hard reality is that a lot of them will be deported. They’re kind of at the end of the road when they get to Etowah.”
This week, Mrs. Weathers will circulate a letter containing over 30 signatures demanding the release of those held at the Etowah facility.
When I spoke again to Mrs. Weathers earlier today, she was buoyant. “I received a gift this morning,” she told me. “I got a call from a man in Kenya who I only visited once or twice. He had helped translate for a man from Angola, and asked about him. He seemed very happy to be back with his family and said he wanted to send me coffee – and he also invited me to visit him. It was humbling.”
She also related a call she received on Friday.
"No one checked on him. He was neglected and ignored."
“A man called me from ECDC on a three-way call from his wife’s cellphone,” she said. “He said they are on lockdown most of the time. For phone calls, they have to call collect – but the phones don’t work. The computers are down so they can’t work on their cases. He told me about a man who was placed in isolation for five days without any test. He didn’t get food or a shower or toothpaste. It was cold, and they didn’t give him adequate clothes. No one checked on him. He was neglected and ignored."
“I feel so overwhelmed,” Mrs. Weathers told me. “It’s just a terrible, horrible corrupt system.”