By Nancy Meyer
My name is Nancy Meyer and I was locked up in immigration detention at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California, for five months in 2017.
The California Attorney General recently released a first-of-its-kind report on conditions inside immigration detention facilities in the state. It confirms what I endured inside this immigrant jail and had reported to the public in a letter that was signed by 27 other women in November 2017.
When we originally reported the deplorable conditions we were being subjected to, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation and found our complaints to be “unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
But that’s not what Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office found.
The report reads, “unlike the Internal Affairs investigation, Cal DOJ’s review found that the allegations in the San Francisco Chronicle reports were at least partially substantiated. Specifically, staffing issues caused women to experience extended lockdowns multiple times a day, when toilet facilities were mostly inaccessible, leading them to, at times, defecate and urinate in biohazard bags when locked in their cells. Facility restrictions on free time led female detainees who did not attend classes and did not have jobs to spend 20-22 hours in their cells every day.”
That’s exactly what I suffered inside. Being locked up there was a nightmare. Although it was due to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that I was detained, it was the deputies who were our daily tormentors.
They acted like tyrants towards me and the other immigrants detained there.
There were many people who did not speak Spanish fluently but spoke indigenous languages and I would try to help them so they could communicate with ICE. As a result, they labeled me the “leader” of the group of women and proceeded to retaliate against me. They would lock me up in cells that were far from other Latina community members.
They would also bother me for being open about being a lesbian. They wouldn’t let me be close with other women. I felt like I was constantly under surveillance.
The food was rotten and inedible. They wouldn’t give us toilet paper or sanitary pads and we would spend at least 22 hours a day locked up in our cells. When we would go brush our teeth, they would demand that we return to our cells, or if we wanted to go to the restroom, they wouldn’t open the door so we had to resort to relieving ourselves in a red biohazard bag.
That’s some of the suffering I had to endure at West County. But it didn’t end there. One day, I had a horrible headache and I implored them to give me a bag of ice to relieve the pain but they refused. And that’s how I spent 15 days, until one day I became so sick that they had to take me to the emergency room. The doctors discovered that I had a brain tumor.
I was then granted a bond because ICE said it could not afford to pay for the kind of surgery I needed.
Finally, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Once the bond was paid, I left the hell that is the West County Detention Facility, which ended its agreement with ICE to hold immigrants following multiple investigations and mass protests.
It’s been about a year since I’ve been released but I still have nightmares that I’ll be detained there again.
My story is just one of many stories of the plight of people detained in this country’s massive network of immigrant jails and prisons. Thankfully, advocacy groups like Freedom for Immigrants were here to support us, and newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle listened to us and helped draw attention to our stories.
I hope the California Attorney General can hold the West County Detention Facility and the Sheriff’s office accountable for its deplorable conditions.
And I hope this report on detention conditions in California will push states to increase independent oversight in a system that lacks transparency and accountability at the expense of thousands of lives, including mine.
Most importantly, we need to put an end to the mass incarceration of immigrants.
Nancy Meyer is a member of Freedom for Immigrants’ Leadership Council. She also works as a make-up artist and hair stylist in southern California.