By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Most people know U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with Etowah County to house detainees in the Etowah County Detention Center, but who is housed in those units of the jail and why they are there may have been something of a mystery.
Officials with the Immigration Customs Enforcement and the Etowah County Detention Center invited reporters to tour the ICE detention units at the center Dec. 4, to let the public know more about the workings within the ICE units.
Philip Miller, Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement New Orleans Field Office, said some of the detainees here are from countries that have no immigration agreements with the United States regarding deportation, or they are from countries that require they sign documents and answer some questions – such as where they’ve attended church or school — before returning.
For some detainees, all that stands between them returning to their home countries is the signing of those documents. Some detainees apparently prefer to stay in the United States in detention than to return to their home country, ICE officials said.
Some countries, Miller said, do not have treaties with the U.S. that provide a process for returns. Cuba, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are especially difficult to negotiate with for detainee returns.
Etowah County houses medium to high security level detainees, many of who have served time for crimes ranging from DUI to homicide, and are awaiting deportation. Miller said 55 percent of all ICE removals have a criminal history.
The detention center has a capacity of 879. On average, 325 detainees are held at the center on separate floors from the state and county prisoners. Inside the locked doors of those units, detainees are free most of the day to leave cells and spend time in a common area with tables and a couple of TVs. There is a rec room at one end of each unit, a row of phones on the wall on the second tier of the unit and an enclosed law library. Because detainees are civil litigants, not criminal ones, they do not have a guaranteed right to legal representation. The law libraries are there to allow them do legal research on their own cases.
Detainees are fed from the same kitchen that prepares food for Etowah County’s prisoners, and there are programs detainees can participate in, such as an Aquaculture program, in cooperation with Gadsden State Community College, that teaches detainees how to make fish tanks and use them to raise fish – a skill that could benefit detainees in most countries they might return to.
In one unit, prayer rugs were stacked outside the rec room, for Muslim detainees to use during prayers.
Another program, Puppies without Borders, takes dogs from the animal shelter and allows detainees to train them so they can be adopted. Other programs include horticulture, barbering and sometimes basic computer skills.
The tour specifically gave reporters access and information about areas of the ICE units that recently came under criticism.
A report last month from an organization called Detention Watch Network named the Etowah County Detention Center as one of the 10 worst in the nation housing immigration detainees.
The “Expose and Close” report recounts complaints about the quality and the amount of food detainees receive, lack of outdoor recreation facilities, visitation, telephone and medical care issues and lack of legal representation.
ICE and Etowah officials seemed to want to convey a specific message: That the detention center is following the standards set by law for the holding of detainees, meeting the nutritional and calorie standards and providing medical care.
ICE Public Affairs spokesman Bryan Cox said there might be complaints about food because it is not the food a detainee might choose. “I might not like broccoli, but that doesn’t mean broccoli’s not good food,” he said. “It’s cafeteria food. Go to any college and students will complaint about the food in their cafeteria.”
While people may disagree with the laws that result in detainees being held in a jail setting, ICE and Etowah County, officials said, it is still the law, and detainees are being held in accordance to it, and the standards it establishes for their care.
Among the complaints in the report was the location of the detention center – that the remote location makes it difficult for detainees’ families to visit. When they do visit, complaints state, it is via video, with no contact.
Miller said in negotiating the contract for detainee housing some changes are going to be made – involving an outdoor recreation facility and contact visits. The detention center is looking at possible Internet-based visitation, for families that cannot come to Gadsden to visit detainees.
While people may disagree with immigration detention laws, officials with ICE and Etowah County invited people into the center to show that while it is a detention center, detainees are being treated properly.
“We are providing safe custody for detainees,” Etowah County Assistant Chief Detention Officer Michael Barton said.