The Etowah Visitation Project: Supporting ICE detainees

Members of Shutdown Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, and the Etowah Visitation Project, 2015.
PHOTO/ADELANTE WORKERS CENTER, BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

 

Etowah County Alabama is under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house up to 350 male immigrants at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, AL. The facility also serves as the county jail for over 500 inmates. The two populations are housed separately.

The Etowah Visitation Project is a member group of Freedom for Immigrants, formerly known as Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a national network which visits and monitors approximately 55 immigrant prisons in 23 states. Through visits and/or letters, we connect with immigrants who are being detained in the Etowah County Detention Center while they await immigration hearings or deportations. Our objective is to be there as friends and listeners, open to people of all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We bear witness to the suffering and to the enormous strength and resilience of character that many of the men possess.

The EVP also provides Christmas packages with food, hygiene items and other supplies each December to all men in immigrant detention. EVP meets individual requests on occasion.

The immigrant men being held are under ICE administration. They are NOT being held for criminal acts, but for immigration violations (some for the “crime” of seeking asylum). Some have been held for many months or years.

Conditions at ECDC are difficult for all prisoners, both county and those in ICE custody. There is no outdoor recreation and prisoners can go for months or years without exposure to the sun. The food is poor, and it includes donated and expired food. Inmates have reported food poisoning, weight loss, and severe hunger. Families suffer the burden of putting money into commissary accounts to supplement their loved one’s diet. Immigrant men often lack resources to purchase supplementary food.

Alabama sheriffs have been able to profit from pocketing “unused” food money allocated to feed prisoners. This practice was codified in state law in 1939, and it has been the subject of intense investigation in recent years by Alabama journalists and human and legal rights organizations.

One of the most egregious examples of this practice was Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etowah County, who left office in January 2019. Over a three-year period he took over $750,000 from the food money account for his personal use. Other Alabama sheriffs have engaged in this practice, and many sheriffs have refused to comply with public records requests concerning their use of food funds.

SB228, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), would change the law which allows sheriffs to personally benefit from jail food funds. It passed the state Senate in April. If it passes the House and is signed by the governor, among other things it would require that food funds be used for feeding prisoners, with unspent balances carried forward to the next year.

For more information, please see the Etowah Visitation Project Facebook page or contact Katherine Weathers, katw002@aol.com. See https://www.freedomforimmigrants.org for more information about our parent organization and how you can volunteer to support men, women, and families in detention in your own communities. Donations can be made at the Interfaith Mission Service, www.interfaithmissionservice.org; select PayPay or credit card.

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