Supporters hold banner offering legal help outside South Bay, November 2013. Photo by Resist the Raids
By Jake Carman
On October 3rd 2013, approximately 40 detainees at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center at Suffolk County House of Corrections (South Bay) in South Boston launched a hunger strike over poor health conditions, among other issues. Organizers in the ICE section, which holds around 200 immigrants, delivered a letter to the prison administration demanding officials “improve food safety,[…]equalize access to programs and services,[…]and support visitation rights.” Detainees then launched a public campaign on September 26, with dozens of supporters rallying outside the prison, and threatened a hunger strike. Following the demand delivery, prison officials held a whole-unit meeting, promising to address the prisoners’ grievances. Prison administration, however, changed little, spurring detainees at all three ICE units in South Bay to hunger strike for three days.
According to an outside supporter working with the detainees in their struggle, “The formidable power and solidarity built by the united detainees at South Bay has both forced ICE to address many demands and further exposed the inhumane nature of immigration enforcement in the US. Following the hunger strike, at least two detainees were released from detention and at least one released from solitary confinement. Some improvements in sanitary conditions have occurred and conversations for further progress are taking place. Meanwhile, though, detainees continue to face retaliation and insufficient access to support, as well as continued sanitary issues.”
Another outside organizer, Antonio DeSilva, told the Cradle of Liberty, “Our main challenge now is trying to figure out how to build communication with the inside. Contact with families is most important, you can’t write anything down in a letter about organizing.”
Another obstacle to the organizers’ goals of “stopping deportation, getting people released, and exposing government practices,” according to DeSilva, is the high turnover of detainees at South Bay and the resultant difficulty of maintaining a permanent organizing group inside. Of 200 detainees in the ICE wing, around 100 are deported every week. “For those from Latin America and the Caribbean, planes leave every week. Those from Africa or elsewhere, however, have to wait much longer. One guy, Scott Vitkovic, has been in there 7 years. The regulation says you get released after six months if you’re not deported first.” Vitkovic is a former human rights activist active in Cold War Czechoslovakia, with whom the ACLU is working. Additionally, immigrants who are detained with criminal charges or convictions remain in the unit “longer, and are thus better able to organize,” says DeSilva.
In recent years, prisoners at South Bay have complained about sanitation, over crowding, and other issues. Many detainees in the ICE section have ulcers from H. pylori bacterium infections, caused by poor sanitation. In 2010, women prisoners filed grievances and asked supporters to host a phone blitz to prison officials after South Bay served inmates food contaminated with maggots and rat feces, and refused to address massive flooding of inmates’ cells.
The following is an interview with a 29-year-old Haitian worker and father, currently unemployed and living in Boston, who was detained in the ICE detention section of South Bay in the months before the hunger strike.
What is life like inside South Bay for an ICE detainee?
It was a very restricted lifestyle. I was the subject of verbal abuse by the correctional officers. The daily routine was a constant in and out of the cell. They get you up for a 7:30 breakfast. You have to be back in your cell at 7:45. At 9:00 you go back out again for morning rec time until 11:30. Then you go back into your cell, then back out at 11:40 for a lunch until 11:50. Then back into your cell at noon, and you come back again at 1:00 for afternoon rec until 2:30. Then we have to go back in to be counted before the guards’ shift changes and the afternoon shift comes in at 3:30. At 3:30 we go back out again until 4:30 for the afternoon break. Then back in, and out again at 5:40 until 5:50 for dinner. Then we go back in again. That is the last meal of the day if you don’t have money to buy [dehydrated] food at the canteen, which you can only do before 4:30. You money for the canteen consists of what your family members send to your account. We go back in from 7:30 until 9:30 for evening rec, then we’re on lockdown for the night.
Detainees can make phone calls during the breaks, but it’s $6 for 20 minutes. God forbid you call someone out of state, its $30 for 20 minutes, even if its New Hampshire.
What is it like to organize at the detention center?
We were trying to organize people to claim certain things that are promised to us. When you are detained by immigration, ICE makes it clear that there’s no legal charges against you, and they’re not taking any punitive actions against you, because you haven’t been sentenced. You’re not an inmate, you’re just being detained. They make it clear the guards shouldn’t bother you or put that many restrictions on your daily living in the detention center. ICE gives a pamphlet to every detainee that explains what you have access to and what your rights are. You’re supposed to have access to the computers, to the law library, to gaming boards. But once you go in there, they treat you just like the inmates next door. It’s very restrictive and they take lots of punitive steps against you. After I was in there for a while, when they gave me a brochure, and I saw what was going on, I told the guys, “We have to do something about it because we are being mistreated.” Based on that brochure, I talked with a couple of inmates and said “This is crazy. We have to ask for what we’re entitled to.”
I became a worker there. I would serve the food, clean the shower stalls, clean the bathroom. I told the guys, “We have to act, we’re not going to clean the bathroom until they give us what we’re entitled to, until we see an immigration judge.” You are at risk for some serious punitive action if you want to organize in there. They can send you to solitary confinement. You can get put in lockdown, where you only get out for meals, not rec time.
A couple times they threatened me. One day they actually took me to the solitary section, but they took me back after an hour because they had no reason to keep me in there. I didn’t like how they were treating an elderly detainee who was in there. The older detainee, his memory was pretty much gone and he has depression. They ended up sending him to solitary confinement for 60 days. When I got out, he was still in solitary. I felt like they were being unfair to him so I tried to tell them my displeasure and they didn’t want to hear it. They took me there and threatened me to do the same thing to me.
Another time I told all the workers we’re gonna go on strike. When the trays come to serve the food, I told all the workers we’re not gonna serve it. One of the CO’s caught wind of this and told me “I wish when the trays come no one was there to serve it, I’d never let you see the light again.” So you are always at risk when you’re organizing in there. But I tried to organize the guys as a union, instead of one person voicing their concern.
I started meeting some of the guys from the outside and talking with them and they connected us with outside organizations. I heard after I left there was a hunger strike organized. People got into major trouble for that. Some were shipped to other facilities, others were sent to solidarity confinement for over 30 days. Organizing there is dangerous and you have to be prepared for the risk that comes with it.
Other than organizing strikes, what other types of actions did you take?
There’s a grievance form in there to file complaints, and it goes to the administration of the whole South Bay prison, not just the ICE section. What I would do is help everyone in the unit fill out the forms, help the guys who couldn’t write in English. A lot of the guys aren’t too proficient in writing in English or speaking it. I’d written a couple of grievances before and noticed they were never addressed. So I figured if I have every single one of the guys on the floor, even if I take my time to write out each grievance myself, and just have them sign them with their name and ID we’d have 70 grievances about the same issue, it would be a lot more effective. I didn’t mind writing them all. If I had one thing in there it was time. I’d put all 70 grievances in and the superintendent would get all these grievances about the same thing. And usually if we had all 70 signatures, something would be done about it.
Last year we had really bad storms and it was really cold. For two or three days we’d have only cold water. They have facility people that take care of those things but for us sometimes it takes them longer to get there. For regular prisoners, the facility people come through more often. The ICE building is so secluded that we don’t have any contact with the facility people, so sometimes it seems they can care less about helping us out. We all signed grievance forms about the issue and the facility people came and took care of it.
What advice do you have for others organizing in ICE detention centers?
If you are passionate about what you are fighting for, it’s worth the hassle. If you don’t think you can handle confinement in a cell, it’s a bad idea. The more charges they have against you, the more time you spend in solidarity confinement. It’s not always the best idea to organize in there because they will strike back against you with very harsh penalties to crush whatever organizing you are doing. I took the risk a couple of times. We’re not inmates. We’re not here for punitive actions the government is taking against us. We’re here as immigration detainees. We shouldn’t be subjected to the same rules as the inmates. But they didn’t care. Those things that were promised to us in the ICE brochures, we didn’t get them. We were being treated just like inmates.
I don’t know how the hunger strike went but what I know is that even though I’m still helping the guys and organizing I don’t get involved in anything that can get criminal charges against me. I’m trying to go from a green card to citizenship, so I limit what I get involved in. I go to rallies, which are completely legal, but not civil disobedience.
If you have a grievance, try to get as many people to sign their own grievance forms. If you have something you want to avoid, bring a united voice, get as many people in there. If you want to organize anything, you better be ready for repercussions.