ICE Detainees Cease Hunger Strike at Yuba County Jail After Officials Hear Demands

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

Updated Feb. 15, 3:45 p.m.

Eighteen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees held at the Yuba County Jail stopped a hunger strike Friday, soon after after jail command staff met them for more than an hour and took notes on their demands, said Danilo Cortez, who participated in the protest that began Sunday.

"It's a start and we are being optimistic," said Cortez, 37, in a call from jail after eating a sack lunch. "That's what we were waiting for, for them to come talk to us. We just want to be heard."

Cortez said the officials agreed to review their demands for timely medical care, and more access to exercise and education programs.  

The Yuba County Sheriff's Department confirmed the meeting with the detainees.

"As of this afternoon, the ICE Hunger Strike participants have accepted meals and the Sheriff's Department has committed to providing them a response to their list of concerns within the coming weeks," said a Leslie Carbah, a spokeswoman with the department.

The 18 detainees, who are being held in a “maximum custody” section at the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, had continued to stage a hunger strike six days after their protest began over conditions at the jail, according to one of the men participating.

The men in the jail’s third floor are kept on lockdown for 19 hours per day in their cells. Even when allowed to step out, they have “nothing to do,” said 37-year-old Cortez.

“To me that’s like torture,” he said. Cortez has spent eight months at the jail while he fights deportation back to Nicaragua.

“We just want to be treated humanely. We just want the basic needs,” Cortez said.

Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson had earlier countered the claims, saying all inmates have access to timely medical care and regular exercise. He said the criminal records of some detainees prevent them from interacting with jail teachers and from taking high school classes and other programs offered at the jail.

“Despite the convictions, arrests or criminal pasts of the detainees, we provide everyone with the best level of care possible,” Anderson said. He added that the jail has passed inspections by ICE.

In January, a federal judge in Sacramento ordered Yuba County Jail to fix long-standing problems, including the same issues detainees are now protesting. The order stemmed from a lawsuit over jail conditions that dates back to 1976.

Attorneys representing inmates said the court order covers everyone incarcerated at the jail, and all inmates are entitled to greater access to medical care, exercise and training programs, regardless of their security level or immigration status.

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Earlier this week, Wendell confirmed 46 ICE detainees were refusing meals. By midweek, only 29 men were considered officially on a hunger strike, according to an ICE spokesman.

This comes as 12 people held at a detention facility in El Paso, Texas are also on a hunger strike over what they say is unfair treatment. Two of them have refused meals since late December, said ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.

After obtaining a court order, officials at El Paso had been force-feeding nine men from India through nasal tubes, which garnered international headlines and strong condemnation from members of Congress. The American Medical Association and International Committee of the Red Cross consider the practice unethical.

But the agency stopped feeding the detainees against their will on Thursday.

"No hunger strikers housed in El Paso are currently being fed pursuant to court orders at this time," Zamarripa said. "Medical staff at the facility continue to closely monitor the health and vital signs of all the hunger strikers to ensure they continue to receive proper medical care."

While the hunger strike was underway at the Yuba County Jail, Cortez said he and other men were planning to continue to refuse meals.

“I was already suffering before the hunger strike. And if I'm going to suffer, I might as well suffer for what's important, for actually voicing and putting out there what's really happening here,” Cortez.

Cortez came to the U.S. from Nicaragua with his mother when he was 2. At age 17, he was convicted of a first-degree, gang-related murder in Los Angeles. In the nearly two decades he spent in state prisons, Cortez earned various vocational certificates in auto mechanics, auto body and other types of vehicle repair, and participated in self-help programs.

In 2016, a parole board found Cortez "suitable for release," but he still had to serve in prison six more years of his sentence.

Cortez applied for a commutation, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown granted it last year.

“Mr. Cortez has accepted responsibility for his actions as a teenager and has dedicated himself to self-improvement since then. ... The Board of Parole hearings determined he would not pose any danger if released,” Brown wrote in his commutation of sentence.

ICE detained Cortez the same day he was released from prison and eventually transferred him to Yuba County Jail.

The agency holds some non-citizens 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.

ICE’s records show another hunger striker at Yuba, who spoke with KQED, was later transferred to the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield.

Susan Lange, with the group Freedom for Immigrants, believed the transfer of Carlos Sauceda — on the fourth day of the hunger strike — was due to the protest.

“He's being transferred in retaliation for the leadership that he's shown. And in order to remove his influence, they are taking him into another facility,” Lange said. “The timing is just too coincidental.”

Sauceda’s immigration attorney, Eloy Aguirre, said he requested a transfer last fall to a facility in Southern California so he could be closer to his family. But the agency did not approved the change until now.

Both Yuba County Jail officials and ICE declined to comment on the transfer.

Since 2016, ICE has spent more than $3 billion on contracts with detention facilities to hold non-citizens 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.