Gadsden, Alabama – In response to a letter addressed to Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton signed by 62 community organizations and a cease and desist letter issued by Freedom for Immigrants on behalf of the Etowah Visitation Project, visitation has resumed at the Etowah Detention Center.
“We are delighted that Etowah Visitation Project visits resumed on Wednesday, December 18, 2019, after approval was granted on December 16. I was personally overwhelmed by the response of the men we visited. They were surprised and happy to receive a visit yesterday. They spoke to us of how meaningful EVP visits are to them and their hope for our continued support. We look forward to strengthening our working relationship with the Sheriff’s Office to our mutual benefit, but mostly to the benefit of the men held in ICE detention,” said Katherine Weathers of the Etowah Visitation Project, the group that coordinates visits between volunteers and people detained at Etowah.
“Sheriff Horton’s efforts to cut off the visitation project from the men detained inside Etowah shows his eagerness to keep a shroud of secrecy over the immigration side of Etowah County Detention Center and the conditions there,” said Patricia Baez, an Organizer with the Shut Down Etowah campaign. “We know this to be consistent with ECDC’s practices and while we are relieved the Visitation Program can now resume their support, we will continue to stand in solidarity with the men detained in Etowah and work to expose and end the abuses of Etowah County Detention Center.”
The visitation program was suspended on November 5, 2019 after a group of volunteers visited 20 immigrants detained at Etowah and then joined a rally outside the jail with the Shut Down Etowah Campaign, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Detention Watch Network, and other local and national organizations on November 3. Less than 48 hours after the rally, the Etowah Visitation Project was suspended. The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office cited two large buses that arrived at ECDC on Sunday, November 3rd, as the reason for unlawfully suspending the program.
“The suspension of the visitation program following the rally was a clear act of retaliation by ICE,”said Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network. “The ramp up of targeting immigrant rights advocates to silence opposition to ICE’s inhumane and unjust immigration detention system is yet another example of the degradation of democratic values under the Trump administration.”
“We're pleased to see the Etowah Visitation Program reinstated, but it was never a question of if, only when,” said Sofia Casini, Southeast Regional Coordinator of Freedom for Immigrants. “In 2015, the last time the visitation program at Etowah was shut down, it was also an act of retaliation over a complaint Freedom for Immigrants submitted alongside 20 currently and formerly detained men. ICE cannot block the First Amendment rights of our volunteers or the men detained because they do not like what is being made public.”
Immigration detention is an isolating experience, particularly as we approach the holiday season. Visitation functions as a lifeline for people inside detention, particularly those detained at Etowah who are kept indoors 24/7 with no access to outdoor recreation. In the month that the visitation program was suspended, its absence was felt among the men in detention. Over 100 men detained at Etowah penned a letter detailing the abuse they face in detention and how the support that the visitation project offered is badly needed:
“Until recently, we had people with the Alabama visitation project come visit us periodically. They would bring books etc., speak with us, offer us help in numerous different ways that helped immensely. These are people that work as volunteers and are truly a benefit to us, especially for those with no one on the outside. The entire jail always looked forward to their visits. That stopped! Simply because of some protests that have been going on for several years now. The relief these people offered us was unbelievable, we will forever be in their debt.”
Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States.. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit www.detentionwatchnetwork.org. Follow @DetentionWatch.
Freedom for Immigrants is devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system. We monitor the human rights abuses faced by immigrants detained by ICE through a national hotline and network of volunteer detention visitors, while also modeling a community-based alternative to detention that welcomes immigrants into the social fabric of the United States. Through these windows into the system, we gather data and stories to combat injustice at the individual level and push systemic change. Visit www.freedomforimmigrants.org. Follow @MigrantFreedom
The Etowah Visitation Project is a member group of Freedom for Immigrants. Through visits and/or letters, the Project connects 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. Join us at www.facebook.com/TheEtowahCountyDetentionProject/.
Shut Down Etowah is a human rights campaign committed to ending the human rights abusesat the Etowah County Detention Center. To learn more, visit shutdownetowah.org.