Immigration Activists Chronicle Squalid Jail Conditions After Protesting at Newsom’s House

Juan Prieto, an Oakland-based undocumented organizer with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, holds hands with fellow undocumented organizer Brisa Cruz from the Central Valley as they protest in front of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s house on July 27, 2020. (Courtesy of Brooke Anderson/@movementphotographer)

When immigration attorney Susan Beaty protested in front of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home in Fair Oaks last Thursday, they were prepared to get arrested.

Beaty was part of a group of 14 demonstrators who protested the treatment of incarcerated people in both immigration detention centers and prisons.

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Organizers said they felt a sense of urgency at the lackluster response to COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and wanted to shine a light on the dangerous conditions there. The COVID-19 case rate is five times higher in state and federal prisons compared to the general population.

Beaty did not expect to experience first-hand the unsafe conditions incarcerated people are facing.

“It was shocking and a really awful experience for us,” said Beaty, an immigration attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland.

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Four undocumented organizers, eight immigration attorneys and two community supporters were arrested. They were taken to Sacramento County Jail where they were booked and spent a total of about 16 hours while waiting to be bailed out and released.

Beaty said social distancing was non-existent. The organizers were given limited protective equipment and were stripped of their own masks, face shields and gloves.

“Honestly, everything we witnessed were things that our loved ones and our clients who are incarcerated have been telling us about, and have been trying to tell the public for months,” Beaty said.

Organizers were made to wear prison uniforms and at one point were made to sit on a bench side-by-side with other people. When one person pointed to a sign that read, “Keep six feet apart,” the booking officer “shook his head and told us to stop being ‘cute,’ ” according to a report the group released on Friday.

“We saw the public health nightmare that is occurring during this pandemic in every jail, prison and detention center in this country,” Beaty said, adding that it was just a taste of what many of their clients endure for months.

Beaty said they were denied food and water for more than 12 hours and several in the group felt sick.

“My toilet in a tiny cell I was in was clogged with food when I arrived,” Beaty said. They used the toilet to vomit in and notified an official when it was clogged. “She told me to reach into the toilet and unclog it with my hand,” Beaty said.

Another immigration lawyer said she had a fever at the time of booking. Jail staff took her temperature and the thermometer showed she had a fever. Afterward, the staff made her drink cold water, lowering her temperature, she said. They took her temperature again and it was normal. Immigration attorneys say this is the same tactic U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have used in other facilities.

Juan Prieto, an undocumented organizer with the Oakland-based California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance said, “I was standing behind her," and verified that staff took her temperature multiple times.

The conditions the group experienced were precisely what they had come to Newsom’s house to protest against. Prieto said he had met with representatives from the governor’s office once before in March to alert Newsom to the unsafe conditions in jails and prisons.

“We were trying to make sure he took action immediately. All of us who had been in conversation with people in these facilities,” Prieto said. With outbreaks in both prisons and immigration detention centers escalating, the situation has only more gotten dire.

Prieto said the fear among those incarcerated in ICE facilities, as well as state jails, has led to waves of hunger strikes and work stoppages. In May, ICE reported that an immigrant detained in one of its facilities died of COVID-19.

Many of the lawyers and organizers have been writing letters and calling on elected officials to release those incarcerated and to address unsafe conditions since the beginning of the pandemic.

All of that led to Thursday’s protest. “We needed to bring these demands to his [Newsom's] house,” Prieto said. "Trying to avoid contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated is impossible unless we take drastic steps."

KQED reached out to Gov. Newsom's office and the Sacramento County Jail for comment but didn’t receive a response by publication.

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July 27, the day the organizers were arrested, also happened to be the same day of civil rights leader John Lewis’ funeral.

“Honestly, the irony was just beyond us,” Prieto said, describing how the memorial service for Lewis was playing in the background while they sat with their hands tied behind their backs. Lewis had encouraged activists to keep fighting and to get into “good trouble.”

“What we did was good trouble,” Prieto said.

He said actions, such as work stoppages and hunger strikes by those incarcerated in both public jails and prisons, have continued at other California facilities

Read an account from protest organizers and immigration attorneys here.