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“It’s Basically a Death Sentence”: Hunger Strikers Demand Release as Virus Surges in ICE Jails

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Image Credit: Cynthia Briones

People being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails are holding work strikes and hunger strikes over the lack of access to personal protective equipment or quality medical care, and to demand their release. We speak with Joe Mejia, an asylum seeker who was among a group of prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California who led a hunger strike while he was held there for nearly 11 months. “That place is dangerous,” Mejia says. “It is a death sentence to detainees, especially right now with the coronavirus.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, yes, many ICE jails are facing repeated work strikes and hunger strikes and other types of protests over the lack of access to personal protective equipment or quality medical care.

For more, we are joined in Salinas, California, by Joe Mejia, an asylum seeker who helped lead a hunger strike at the Yuba County Jail, where he was held by ICE for nearly 11 months, just released last week.

Joe, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the conditions within the Yuba County Jail. How many detained immigrants were there? You had been transferred from a prison, where you had served full-time, to this jail. How did you — what happened inside?

JOE MEJIA: Yes. So, I paroled in 2017 in October. And immediately, at R&R, which is the booking and receiving end of prison, where they book you in and transfer you out, ICE was there to pick me up as soon as I was released. And they took me to my first detention facility, which was in Elk Grove, which is now closed because the contract had ended. And since then, I have been bounced around to two more detention facilities after that, which I landed in Yuba County Jail about August of last year.

And that place is dangerous. It is a death sentence to detainees, especially right now with the coronavirus. Medical attention is very poor, at best. The conditions there are filthy. The staff are very aware of the dangers and the dire situation that they have us all in, and they just don’t care. They don’t care about our safety. They don’t care about our well-being. And it’s clear in the way they treat us and in the hygiene kits and the food and the water that they provide us. It’s a clear signal of their poor treatment and negligence towards us.

And yeah, like you mentioned, I helped lead a hunger strike about two weeks ago. And thankfully, you know, I was blessed, and I was released last Tuesday, thanks to this COVID-19 bond, which they’re calling it in there.

But it’s basically a death sentence. Anybody getting picked up from prison or getting picked up from the streets and going into a detention center, it’s basically a death sentence right now. They’re playing Russian roulette with our lives. People are getting infected — Mesa Verde; Otay, San Diego. I mean, there’s infections right now, as we speak, in Bakersfield. And these facilities know it’s going on. Gavin Newsom knows it’s going on, and yet he’s doing nothing to prevent it, to stop it from further spreading.

They’re actually delivering — hand-delivering coronavirus to all these other countries when they’re deporting them — India, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, all these countries. They know they have infected people, and they continue to deport them into these countries that have little to no resources to combat COVID-19. So, you know, anybody can see that they’re one of the main contributors to the spreading of coronavirus worldwide. And yet they’re doing nothing to prevent it or stop it from continuing to spread. And I feel Gavin —


JOE MEJIA: — Newsom has — yes, sir.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Joe Mejia, I wanted to ask you: What was the response of the guards within the detention center as you began organizing the hunger strike? Was there any attempts at retaliation, before you were released?

JOE MEJIA: Yes. So, they always retaliate, even before the hunger strike. This facility is ran by sheriffs. It’s a county jail. So, their tactics are intimidation and retaliation always.

So, when we did the hunger strike, they pepper-sprayed some of the detainees. They isolated them in what they call cold rooms or cool-out rooms, with no beds, you know, no entertainment, no phones, no nothing. It’s just a toilet in a big rubber room. And they had them there with the threat of, if you’re not going to eat, you’re going to remain here until you eat.

So, you know, through these tactics and psychological warfare, they tried to scare us from practicing our First Amendment right of freedom of speech and protest, peaceful protest. At no time did any of the detainees attack these officers or were aggressive towards them, but yet these officers clearly attacked, handcuffed, manhandled these detainees, pepper-sprayed them and held them in these cold rooms until they ate. So, I mean, this is just — it’s been going on for years.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have access to masks and protective gear?

JOE MEJIA: Sure, they gave us masks, but they did not provide them for us. Local organizations provided us with handmade masks. And so, you know, they always twist things around, and they always find a way to punish us for any type of thing like this. So, they made a rule where if we hand-wash these masks, we’ll get written up, or we’ll get disciplined for it. You know, just little things like that. But yet they can’t provide us with clean masks. They just give us that one mask. And the laundry there is very bad. Everything that comes back from laundry smells like urine. It’s always stained. So everyone is scared to send these masks off to laundry, because they know it’s going to come back smelling worse than what they were sent off like.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the hunger strike continuing there, Joe?

JOE MEJIA: As far as I know, no, but I know they’re planning to do a second wave of hunger strike, because they have done nothing to accommodate our dire situation with the coronavirus.

As a matter of fact, I brought a hygiene kit with me from Yuba County Jail. So, if you’re indigent, this is what you’re supposed to clean your entire body with. This is the bar of soap that they expect a grown man to clean their body with. So, if you have no money at Yuba County Jail, you’re basically going to starve, and you’re basically going to have very poor hygiene. And those are one of the things that we are demanding from ICE and Yuba County Jail, that they give us basic care, basic necessities, things that any basic human deserves, like shoes. They don’t even give us shoes when we go into Yuba. We don’t get Q-tips. We don’t get deodorant. We don’t get lotion. We don’t get any of that. So, those are some of the things that they are demanding from Yuba and from ICE.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe, we’re going to have to cut you off, but I thank you so much for being such an important voice, now outside. You were inside. And Joe Mejia is an asylum seeker recently released from Yuba County Jail, where he was held by ICE for nearly 11 months.

When we come back, we find out what happened on the Arizona-Mexico border with a raid. Stay with us.

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