Immigrant detainees end hunger strike after being moved to Yuba County jail ‘dungeon’

After seven days, all 15 detainees participating in a hunger strike for better conditions in Yuba County jail accepted meals and ended the strike, said Paul Prince, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts to use more than half of the jail’s beds.

The strike began when detainees refused breakfast on June 30, according to Leslie Carbah, a spokeswoman for the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. ICE and the jail began using official strike protocol on Wednesday, after each striker had refused nine meals. When the strike ended early Sunday, each striking detainee had refused 21 meals.

After the strike began, all detainees refusing meals were moved to H pod, a separate branch of the facility that one Yuba County grand jury report called a “dungeon.”

Carbah said that this separation happens “for purpose of monitoring” — but advocates for the detainees say that the move to H pod is part of a pattern.

“They used this strategy at the last strike in February,” said Rhonda Rios Kravitz, a member of the advocacy group Sacramento Immigration Coalition. H pod is “filthy” and “in the oldest part of the building, ” Rios Kravitz said. Strikers asked for supplies to clean the area themselves, she said.

H pod is part of the original jail built in 1963. It was most recently remodeled in 2001, Carbah said. The grand jury reported in 2015 that it’s called “the dungeon” by staff and inmates.

“Space is quite limited, with narrow halls, low ceilings, and almost no windows except a very few above head height,” the report said. “The showers are dark and the entrance opening is covered by a heavy dark curtain.”

The report recommended that the county secure funding for a new jail or upgrade the existing one “for the health and well-being of staff and inmates.”

Because of that report, Yuba County was awarded $20 million by the state to build new adult correctional facilities, but construction has not started yet.

Last week, the strikers were taken to be weighed and to have blood pressure taken inside H pod, Rios Kravitz said. However, they refused this service on Friday because “the medical area ... was dirty and unhygienic.”

“ICE is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement in part by conducting multiple inspections,” Prince said in an email.

When the strike was over, detainees were taken back to D pod, which was completed in the early 1990s, according to the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department.

ICE guidelines for strikes allow guards to isolate detainees, administer involuntary medical treatment and seize all commissary or food that a detainee has bought from a vending machine.

During the strike, jail officials had discussions with detainees, during which they explained that meeting several of the strikers’ demands were not possible due to legal settlements, a lack of resources and physical space — such as an additional exercise yard or facilities for physical contact visits, which Carbah said the jail is “not equipped for.”

ICE detainees make up about half of the jail’s residents. As of 2014, 220 of 433 beds in the facility belong to ICE, which pays the jail $97.39 a day for each detainee. With an average detainee population between 170 and 190, the operation brings in almost $6.5 million a year for the jail.

The detainees were striking to demand newer facilities, better medical attention and follow-through on promises to improve conditions. This was their third strike in 10 months — a tactic they must continue to use because they are “tired of empty promises,” one unnamed detainee said in a statement that was read aloud outside the jail on Wednesday.

Carbah said that detainees have no need to strike.

“It does not take a hunger strike to have a (dialogue) about these things,” she said. “We are always willing to communicate about concerns. It simply takes a request to meet and discuss with jail command and supervisors.”

Elliot Wailoo, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in prison systems, police, and education. He is originally from New Jersey.