ICE Detainees Hold Hunger Strike to Protest Conditions at Northern California Jail

3 min
The entrance to the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

Dozens of immigration detainees held at a jail north of Sacramento have refused meals since Sunday morning, in protest of detention conditions, KQED has learned.

Yuba County Jail staff and medical personnel are monitoring 46 detainees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who continue to refuse food, said Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson. He added that ICE is aware of the developments.

Detainees participating in the hunger strike, which is planned to last three days, are protesting delayed medical care, overly restrictive conditions, and insufficient exercise and education opportunities, according to one of the men participating in the strike.

Carlos Sauceda said he has seen injured detainees who were in pain waiting days, or even weeks, to see a nurse or doctor. He and others in the “maximum custody” section on the jail’s third floor, who are considered to have gang affiliations, are usually on lockdown 19 hours a day, or sometimes longer, he said.

“Sometimes we go two days inside our cells without being provided any exercise time out of our cells. No fresh air, none of that,” Sauceda, 38, said in a phone call from jail.

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Even when they are allowed to step out of their cells, they don’t have much to do, he said.

“So that leaves everybody simply staring at the wall, which creates a lot of tension because there's no way for us to cope with our stress,” said Sauceda, who has been held at the Yuba County Jail for 15 months as he fights deportation to his native Honduras.

In a statement to the press, Anderson said that medical staff is on duty 24 hours a day at the jail and all inmates are allowed to have outside exercise several times per week. While GED, anger management and other weekly classes are available to most ICE and local inmates, some detainees don’t have access to those programs because of their past criminal records, he said.

“While the ICE population changes daily, Yuba County houses detainees whose crimes prevent many of them from interacting with the public, with jail teachers and with ministers,” Anderson said in a statement. He added that about half of the detainees refusing food are identified as gang members.

Last month, a federal judge in Sacramento ordered the Yuba County Jail, which is located in Marysville, to fix the same issues the immigration detainees are currently protesting. The order is part of a lawsuit over jail conditions that dates back to 1976.

Attorneys representing inmates said everyone held at the Yuba County Jail is covered by the judge’s order and entitled to greater access to exercise, medical care and education programs, regardless of their security level or immigration status.

“They are obligated to provide programming to all the people that are detained there,” said Carter White, who directs the Civil Rights Clinic at the UC Davis School of Law.

ICE holds some noncitizens in its own detention facilities during deportation proceedings, but most are housed in county jails and privately owned prisons. The Yuba County Jail has a contract with ICE to hold an average of 180 people.

In the last month, ICE detainees in El Paso, San Diego and other parts of the country have staged hunger strikes to protest confinement conditions. At the El Paso Processing Center, nine men continue to be force-fed, an ICE spokeswoman confirmed. The detainees, mostly from India, remain on a self-imposed hunger strike after more than a month. A judge approved feeding through nasal tubes, which immigrant advocates called a “cruel, degrading and inhumane practice.”

Officials at the Yuba County Jail do not yet consider detainees officially on hunger strike, because they haven’t refused more than nine consecutive meals, as defined by ICE policy.

Since 2016, ICE has spent more than $3 billion on contracts with detention facilities to hold noncitizens who could be deported. But the agency has rarely imposed any financial penalties on contractors, despite “thousands of deficiencies and instances of serious harm to detainees” at the facilities, according to a recent report by the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration detention is not supposed to be a punishment under the law, unlike imprisonment in the criminal justice system, but ICE holds people in jail-like settings.

Sauceda said detainees on his floor want access to more vocational training and education opportunities available to other inmates so that they can improve their case for release before an immigration judge.

“They don’t provide us with anything to improve our conditions. Self-help programs are vital to be able to rehabilitate yourself,” he said.

Sauceda came to the U.S. as a child with a green card, but at age 14 he was convicted of a second-degree, gang-related murder in Los Angeles. In the more than two decades Sauceda spent in state prisons, he earned a college degree and worked in a gang prevention program for at-risk kids.

A parole board granted his release on November 17, 2017. But before Sauceda could walk free, ICE took custody of him, because his criminal conviction made him deportable. He was locked up that same day at the Yuba County Jail.

“I was able to change my life and detach from any gang involvement,” Sauceda said. “I'm a college graduate. I rehabilitated myself. I was able to prove to the state of California that I was no longer a threat to society. But the moment I arrived at this county jail, I was again labeled as gang-affiliated.”

The Yuba County Jail can hold up to 433 inmates. The jail shares a cramped building, originally built in 1962, with the courthouse, county records and part of the sheriff’s department. (Courtesy Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP)

An immigration judge ruled that Sauceda could remain in the U.S. because he risked persecution by gang members if he was deported to Honduras. But the federal government appealed and his case has been pending since October, said Eloy Aguirre, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles representing Sauceda.

Sauceda said ICE detention is worse than prison.

“It's just something that amazes me and other people here, that while you’re serving for the crime you've committed you get more programming than when you are held as a civil detainee,” he said. “I'm actually being treated as if I just got arrested again.”

Under the Jan. 23 order by Judge Edmund Brennan, the Yuba County Jail must ensure the medical staff schedules sick calls within 72 hours, or sooner if the requests are urgent. The jail must also offer at least five hours of exercise per week to all inmates. At a minimum, inmates should have access to courses leading to a high school degree, as well as life skills, substance recovery and vocational training.

The Yuba County Jail has six months to comply. Carter White, with the immigration clinic at the UC Davis School of Law, and another law firm in San Francisco will monitor the jail’s progress.

Jail officials “sat down in good faith and negotiated this order, and if they don't follow it, we will go back to the judge and make sure that he orders them to do that,” White said.

Medical staffing and available treatment for inmates has “vastly improved” since September 2017, when the jail began a three-year contract with a company called California Forensic Medical Group, according to the most recent grand jury report of the Yuba County Jail.

“While we are not without issues, we are taking steps to better our facility,” Sheriff Anderson said.

Sauceda said a copy of the 1978 consent decree, which led to Judge Brennan’s order this January, is posted by a jail window. But Sauceda believes more pressure will be needed for officials to make changes to inmates’ confinement.

He said a jail official, who spoke with detainees a few hours after they began to refuse meals on Sunday, said nothing could be done to improve conditions for those in “maximum custody.”

“We already know that we're going to be excluded because just yesterday the sergeant said that they can't give us nothing because we're maximum custody,” Sauceda said.

ICE’s detention standards say detainees must have regular access to reading materials and “recreational and exercise programs and activities.” But the agency's guidelines do not mention any requirement for education or vocational training programs.