Advocacy Groups Call on ICE and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office to Reinstate CIVIC’s Community-based Visitation Program and Hotline at the West County Detention Facility (WCDF)

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ICE and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office Terminated CIVIC’s Programs at WCDF in Retaliation for Public Criticism of Detention Conditions

March 8, San Francisco – Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) — a nationwide network working to end the isolation and abuse of people in ICE detention through visitation, monitoring, and other types of support — is calling on ICE and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office to reinstate their community visitation program and free hotline at the West County Detention Facility (WCDF) in Richmond, CA.

Since 2011, CIVIC has operated a visitation program and free hotline for people in ICE detention at WCDF.  Last November, CIVIC published a letter from 27 women detained at WCDF that recorded abuses at the facility, including being frequently locked up for hours and being forced to use bags in their cells when they needed to use the toilet.
 
“I am very grateful to CIVIC because they were of great help and support to my immigration case. It was hell where I was detained. They kept us in a precarious situation,” expressed Nancy Mayer Mejia, who was detained for five months at WCDF and penned the letter that 26 other women then signed onto. “Thanks to the people of CIVIC, I believed in myself again. They brought hope into my life during every visit.”
 
Since November, CIVIC has continued to speak out in newspapers, on the radio, in community meetings, and at peaceful protests outside the facility.  The letter from the women in detention led to calls for investigations from local representatives, including U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who called for a federal probe into the matter.
 
“CIVIC volunteers play an essential role in supporting people in ICE detention and their families.  When we are informed about human rights abuses at the hands of the government, it is our moral and civic responsibility to speak up and share the demands of those on the inside with the public,” said Rebecca Merton, CIVIC’s National Visitation Network Coordinator and Independent Monitor and the local coordinator of the WCDF visitation program.
 
On February 15, ICE terminated CIVIC’s free hotline with no advance warning or subsequent explanation.  CIVIC has been operating this hotline since 2011, and uses it to facilitate visits and legal representation.  Shortly thereafter, on February 20, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office suspended CIVIC visitation program coordinator Rebecca Merton’s visitation clearance with no clear explanation.  After pressing the Sheriff’s Office for a reason, CIVIC leadership received an email on Monday from Captain Kristi Butterfield of WCDF, explaining that the Sheriff’s Office was revoking access for all CIVIC volunteers and terminating the visitation program at WCDF.  The email explained that they had conducted a “thorough investigation” into CIVIC’s “emails, phone calls, radio and newspaper interviews” and found that “the organization poses a safety and security risk to the WCDF.”
 
“ICE and the county are trying to make us choose between our First Amendment rights and visiting our friends in ICE detention. This is not a choice that our government can legally ask us to make,” said Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of CIVIC.  “The constitution isn’t optional.  It can’t be disregarded in an attempt to silence critics of the immigration detention system.”
 
After various local, state, and federal legislators sent inquiries to the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office and ICE about CIVIC’s program termination, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department released a statement on March 8 on Facebook, stating that CIVIC volunteers had violated certain policies and procedures.  
 
Since 2011 with the full knowledge of ICE and WCDF staff, CIVIC has been providing up to $20 of commissary money to people in detention so that they can buy food to supplement their meager meals at the facility.  This is money CIVIC has raised from donations from churches and synagogues around the Bay Area. Since 2011 with the full knowledge of ICE and WCDF staff, CIVIC has been fielding phone calls and mail from people in ICE detention through the hotline extension ICE provided CIVIC and through other phone calls initiated by people in ICE detention.  All regular phone calls and mail are monitored by the facility. CIVIC has never sent contraband to people in ICE detention. We have only sent religious and literary texts requested by people in ICE detention such as Catholic prayer books directly from book publishers. Since 2011 with the full knowledge of ICE and WCDF staff, CIVIC has provided people in ICE detention at WCDF and their ICE officer and immigration judge with the home addresses of the volunteers so that our volunteers can serve as sponsors to the people in ICE detention eligible for release.  This is often the only way an asylum seeker can get released on parole.
 
Lesbia Karina Pérez Vásquez, a 21-year-old woman who fled Guatemala and was detained at WCDF, was one individual who benefited from this type of support: “When I was first picked up by ICE I was frightened and felt so alone.  At WCDF I was told by other women that CIVIC came in every Friday to visit.  We would all get excited that a friendly face was coming to see us,” she explained. Carmen Jimenez-Smith, a CIVIC volunteer began to visit Ms. Pérez Vásquez and worked with other CIVIC volunteers to fundraise for Ms. Pérez Vásquez’s immigration bond.  She was released on February 1. Ms. Pérez Vásquez continued: “Señora Carmen placed me in her home and is continuing to host me and help me gain legal status. I’m so grateful for CIVIC.”
 
None of these actions are in violation of the facility’s policies, which all CIVIC volunteers are forced to sign if they want to visit someone in ICE detention.  It’s essentially a contract of adhesion. The policy specifically says that volunteers should not “contact or correspond with inmate or with any member of the inmate’s family except as required by the employee’s assigned duties.”  CIVIC volunteers are not employees of the facility, but even if they were, their assigned duties are to visit people and provide them with the support they need to address complaints and obtain their freedom through the immigration legal system.
 
“The money we provide people in ICE detention so they can buy food serves as a major source of revenue for the facility along with the phone calls.  Both commissary items and phone calls are exorbitantly priced. The money the facility obtains from the commissary and the phone calls are deposited in something called the ‘Inmate Welfare Fund.’  However, there is little accountability or transparency on how this money is spent. Up until now, the money we have been sending to people in ICE detention has served the facility just fine. But now, that we are speaking out against the system, the facility has decided that we no longer are serving them and we must be silenced,” said Christina Mansfield, the co-founder/executive director of CIVIC.

The visitation program ban came the day before Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed a suit against California’s sanctuary laws, including AB 103, which CIVIC helped draft and provides the California state Attorney General with the power to monitor ICE detention facilities in the state.  In Sessions’ complaint, he explicitly names the WCDF as a place he does not want the state monitoring.

“In terminating our program, the Sheriff’s Department and ICE are not just trying to punish us, they are trying to send a message to other activists to stay silent.  We will not be silenced,” said Fialho.
 
Please join us in telling ICE and the Sheriff’s Department that we will not be silent.  It’s time we #BreaktheICE.
 
Protest organized by “Let Our People Go” to Support CIVIC and Shed Light on Inhumane Conditions at WCDF:
Time: Sunday, March 11, 2018 from 11am-12pm
Location: Outside the West County Detention Facility, 5555 Giant Hwy, Richmond, CA 94806
 
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To request an interview with CIVIC or with people in ICE detention at WCDF, contact Rebecca Merton at RMerton@endisolation.org

Or contact Liz Martinez, CIVIC’s Communications Director, at LMartinez@endisolation.org

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