PHOENIX, Arizona – A movement to protest alleged mistreatment of immigrants being held in Maricopa County jails gathered momentum this week as jail detainees initiated a series of hunger strikes, and protests were held in various parts of the county.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) confirmed several instances of inmates refusing food over the past week.
“We’re surprised, we never expected this. But we’re supporting them,” said activist Salvador Reza, an organizer from the pro-immigrant movement PUENTE. His group held a candlelight vigil Wednesday night with relatives of inmates.
The county jail system, administered by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, houses about 9-thousand inmates. On average, undocumented immigrants make up 20 percent of the prison population.
Last Saturday PUENTE led a 6 mile-march to the Durango jail complex to denounce alleged abuse of immigrant women in the county jails. Sheriff Arpaio was the first to report that 43 women in the Estrella Jail had gone on a hunger strike to support the protesters. Citing security reasons, Arpaio had ordered all prisoners to be placed in lock-down during the march.
On Tuesday, May 5th Spanish-language TV station Univision 33 reported on another strike in the Durango jail through an interview with family members of inmates. MCSO confirmed to Feet in Two Worlds that 900 inmates refused their evening meal that same day. Arpaio said Wednesday that the strike was over. But later on Wednesday evening his office reported that 245 inmates had again refused dinner.
Richard De Uriarte, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors said they confirmed the strike on May 5th and asked Correctional Health Services to continue to monitor the situation.
Gregorio León, is a relative of an inmate who decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike. He said his relative didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation by the sheriff’s office. Leon said the strike was in direct response to the lock-down of the jail facilities during the May 2nd march and to protest conditions at the jail and intimidation of prisoners by guards.
In a letter to a family member an inmate said “in the jails we have to tolerate bad food, put up with foul language used by the guards, and if we have something to say we stay silent for fear of reprisals.”
Currently, MCSO is the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over allegations of racial profiling. Civil rights accusations against this agency were also raised during a recent congressional hearing.
Through a series of staged marches and protests, human and civil rights activists have been calling for the revocation of a 287 (g) federal agreement that allows MCSO deputies to enforce federal immigration laws.
Yet, Saturday’s march was the first time the protest focused on conditions in county jails and the treatment of immigrant inmates.
Reza said the protest was inspired by the cases of several women who reported intimidation and brutality by jail guards.
One of the cases is that of Maria del Carmen Garcia-Martinez whose arm was allegedly broken by jailers.
Garcia-Martinez, 46, said in an interview that on March 11 six jailers tried to force her to put her fingerprint on a document she didn’t want to sign, and in the process broke her left arm. She said she spent at least 20 hours without medical care after the incident occurred until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers took her to the hospital.
The Maricopa County Sheriffs Office and ICE confirmed that they have initiated an investigation of Garcia-Martinez’s charges. Lt. Brian Lee, a spokesperson for MCSO said its office was required to get the fingerprint in the document to transfer Garcia-Martinez to ICE custody. Lee said they were authorized to use force.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t seem to be worried about the allegations. “Anybody can accuse me of anything, like they are doing. I feel very comfortable with my position. We have nothing to hide,” said Arpaio.
Allegations of brutality and abuse within the jails administered by Arpaio are not new. In 1997, Amnesty International condemned the mistreatment of pre-trial inmates in these facilities.
Maricopa County has paid about $42 million in settlements of lawsuits over jails deaths and abuse, according to public records. The best-known case involved the death of inmate Scott Norberg in a jail-restraining chair in 1996. His family settled a lawsuit for $8.25 million against the sheriff’s office.
In 1997, then-U.S Attorney for Arizona Janet Napolitano settled a two-year investigation of excessive and improper use of force by jail employees towards inmates with an agreement in which Arpaio did not admit any responsibility. Back then, as reported by the Phoenix New Times in a November 1997 article: “Arpaio bragged that despite the investigation and lawsuit, he wouldn’t change any of his practices.”
Now as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Napolitano has the authority to revoke the 287 (g) agreement with Maricopa County.
Knowing first hand the situation in Arizona “it’s inexcusable that she (Napolitano) hasn’t used her political position to put him in check, ” said Aarti Shahani a researcher with Justice Strategies and lead author of the report “Local Democracy on ICE”. In the report Shahani says police have been using federal immigration powers to go after corn-vendors and traffic violators without probable cause, rather than concentrating on“illegal criminal aliens” which are intended to be the main focus of the program.
The researcher said the use of 287 (g) programs within the jails –that are meant for low-offense perpetrators – opens the doors for local law enforcement agencies to arrest people charged with minor offenses just with the goal of getting them deported.
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Arizona