Immigrant rights advocates across the country demand Sheriff Horton reinstate the Etowah Visitation Project

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
The Etowah Visitation Project coordinators volunteer visits to people detained in the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama. Visitation can be a lifeline for people inside detention, particularly those detained at Etowah who are kept indoors 24/7 with no access to outdoor recreation.

Gadsden, Alabama – Just over a month since the Etowah Visitation Project celebrated the reinstatement of the project at the Etowah Detention Center on December 18, the group has learned that the agreement previously in place between Sheriff Horton and the visitation project is not being upheld despite being notified by his office that visits would resume. Rather, people detained are no longer being formally connected to community support, as they were previously, and barriers imposed make visitation nearly impossible. Today, groups across the country amplified the need to reinstate the program to its original form immediately.

“While visitation is now possible, the Sheriff’s Office has also imposed severe restrictions on key components of the visitation program,” said Katherine Weathers of the Etowah Visitation Project,  which provides a lifeline for people inside the Etowah Detention Center where people detained are kept indoors 24/7 with no access to outdoor recreation.

Restrictions on the visitation program include:

  • Etowah Detention Center staff will no longer post sign up sheets in the units or schedule visits for volunteers. Sign up sheets give the men in detention the opportunity to request visits or pen pals and inform them of the availability of volunteers who want to reach out to them.
  • Visitors are no longer able to visit multiple people but are restricted to a single 20 minute visit per day. Scheduling visits requires visitors to coordinate visits with people in detention by (US mail) which is time consuming and to use the online jail system to set up a single 20 minute on-site visit.

“We have made multiple attempts to reach out to the Etowah Detention Center staff, but continue to receive little to no assistance,” added Weathers who travels three hours roundtrip from Huntsville to make a single visit at the Gadsden facility. “By not honoring our previous agreement, Sheriff Horton is jeopardizing a critical lifeline of support, further isolating immigrants whose lives are already in danger while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.”

The visitation program was suspended on November 5th of last year 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 the detention center on Sunday, November 3rd, as the reason for unlawfully suspending the program. Over 60 organizations signed on to a letter urging Sheriff Horton to immediately reinstate the visitation program.

“After the initial suspension, we issued a cease and desist letter on behalf of the Etowah Visitation Project demanding the visitation program resume immediately under the original program,” said Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. "The termination of the Etowah Visitation Project is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of volunteers to protest inhumane conditions and provide support to those suffering in immigration detention. This is unacceptable and we will not stand by silently."

To call attention to the undermining of the Etowah Visitation Project’s agreement, today, groups in Alabama organized a national day of action directing calls to Sheriff Horton demanding he reinstate the project.  

“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 facility,” said Patricia Baez, an Organizer with the Shut Down Etowah campaign. “The suspension of the visitation program following the rally was a clear act of retaliation by ICE and Sheriff Horton -- we must collectively denounce the Sheriff’s actions and demand visitation resume under the previous agreement.”