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News :: Organizing : Police and Prisons
Immigrant Detainees Struggle for Rights at South Bay
02 Feb 2014
This interview is reposted from Prison Action News 7.1

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 Dorchester launched a hunger strike over poor health conditions, among other issues. Organizers in the ICE section, which holds about 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 go on 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.”

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 bacterial 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 an anonymous 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:
PAN: 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. After I was in there for a while, when they gave me a brochure, and I saw what was going on, I talked with a couple of inmates and said “We have to do something about this because we are being mistreated. 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. 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 concerns we act as a union. I started meeting some of the guys from the outside who come in to talk with us, 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 we’re 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.

PAN: Other than organizing strikes, what other types of actions did you take?

There’s a grievance form in there to file complaints against the medical staff, a correctional officer, or the facility altogether, 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, so what I would do is grab like seventy grievance forms for the seventy guys on the unit. 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.

This work is in the public domain.
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