I don't know about you, but my Human Rights Day awareness started all too early. In the car driving to work news streamed in that Ugandan politicians were working to implement a death penalty for homosexuality. And how only after much cattle-prodding have certain evangelical leaders come out in opposition.
My head went gray as I recalled the case of Bob-Nwachakwu Heme Chima, deported by U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement to his home country of Nigeria earlier this year despite his plea for amnesty and fears of Nigeria's violently anti-gay culture.
Heme Chima had been in ICE custody since February and transferred to the Port Isabel Detention Center east of San Benito where he said he was denied HIV medication and “deprived of food and religious rights when I wanted to fast and pray as a Christian.”
After he was returned to Nigeria in May, he sent me the following note:
I do not know his current condition.
It was with this in mind, that I drove up I-35 to chronicle a protest of the GEO Group, which runs the Reeves County Detention Center. I toured the prison more than a decade ago when the allegations were related to employees bringing in minor amounts of drugs for the detainees. But the picture has radically altered since then as the prison has expanded and become a major contractor with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for housing federal inmates on immigration-violation charges.
Multi-day riots at the end of last year and in late January of 2009 followed the death of 32-year-old Jesus Manuel Galindo, an epileptic inmate who died after experiencing multiple seizures in solitary confinement. His death, and the circumstances around it, are not unique to the facility, says Bob Libal, Texas campaigns coordinator with Grassroots Leadership. All told, nine inmates in the last four years have died at RCDC, he said.
“Many of them seem to have been very preventable. They were due to the lack of medical care, neglect. Reports are if someone gets sick and complains that they are put into solitary confinement,” Libal said.
And critics of GEO don't stop at Reeves County. Several GEO facilities have been closed or contracts with the company canceled after similar events elsewhere, including at the Val Verde County Jail where a female inmate who had complained to her family she had been raped and beaten by guards killed herself in custody.
Then there was the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, closed by the state in the wake of the Texas Youth Commission scandals.
A letter slipped under the door of GEO after staff refused to meet with the group calls on GEO to “immediately address and remedy the inhumane treatment and abuse inflicted on immigrant prisoners” by:
- Voluntarily requesting and submitting to an investigation into prisoner deaths by the U.S. Department of Justice;
- Implement a grievance system that is accessible and transparent; and
- Allow Civil Rights groups to enter the facility to monitor conditions and prisoner complaints.
Here's a video of the press conference and attempt to deliver the letter:
All this is not to say that San Antonio has somehow dodged the problems inherent in the privately operated prison-industrial complex.
In fact, when 54-year-old Bexar County jail guard Daniel Melgoza was indicted last month on charges of depriving inmates of their civil rights and obstruction of justice â?? indictments rooted in allegations he beat and kicked two inmates at the jail five years ago â?? San Antonians weren't shocked.
“This confirms abuse,” Antonio Dias of the Texas Indigenous Council (pictured, far right) said, standing outside the Bexar County Courthouse. “There's a lot of allegations of more abuse.”
Though he's jumping ahead of the legal process â?? Melgoza has yet to see his day in court, after all â?? Dias' assessment of myriad allegations is accurate. According to Mary Jane Martinez, the mistreatment of her son, Jimmy Aldana III, being held on burglary charges until a January trial date, began when he was first processed into the facility. She said, although her son is not a gang member, jail administrators forced the 21-year-old to choose a gang affiliation for his cell assignment. Since, he's been warehoused for several months now on the second floor with members of a prominent, international drug gang.
The arrangement hasn't been without incident.
On October 29, a prison guard opened Aldana's cell door, allowing several inmates to swarm in and beat Aldana, along with his cellmate Joshua Martinez, so severely they were both sent to the jail's infirmary, Mary Jane Martinez said. The cell was later set on fire.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards investigated and found that while the jailer was at fault for opening the cell door, TCOJS director Adan Munoz, Jr., blamed Aldana and Martinez for the fire. Something Martinez denies, citing a conversation she had with a jail staffer who confirmed her son had been in the infirmary at the time of the fire.
She says that Aldana's refusal to join the gang, and consistent attempts to file grievances with the jail administration, threaten his safety two ways.
And though she worries that telling Aldana's story will further put him at risk, she quotes her son: “I don't care anymore. Because from here to my court date, I don't know if I'm going to be alive.”
Roger Dovalina, deputy chief over detention, was not in the office today, and Deputy Chief Dale Bennett, the department's spokesperson, did not return a call from the Current before leaving for the day.
At heart of the dispute is the lack of transparency at the facility, said Diana Ibanez, vice president of the local Judicial, Criminal & Social Justice Coalition, whose son is also incarcerated.
The Coalition filed a complaint about this incident, and others like it, last month with the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Texas Rangers, ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project and a range of political leaders. “We have tried to meet with Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz who is responsible for the overall operation of the Bexar County facility, as well as Chief Deputy Mr. Roland Tafolla in an effort to address the serious violations of civil rights that are being perpetrated, on a daily basis, at the Bexar County Detention Center,” the group wrote.
The group specifically accuse a jailer of beating up Aldana and pre-trial detainee Alfred Bela. “The beating was so bad that it caused Mr. Bela to lose his hearing,” the letter states.
However, families of the detainees are routinely denied requested records, said Ibanez. “There's no way for any one to get any proof of what's going on in there,” she complained.
To rectify that failure, Dias would like to see the Bexar County Commissioners approve funding to install more complete surveillance cameras throughout the facility. “There's no way to verify without video, because all we have to rely on is his testimonyâ?¦ It's time to move into the 21sst century,” Dias said.
Martinez said despite her many complaints “he's still on that same floor, my son, and he's still in danger.”
This Saturday, Members of the ACLU, Grassroots Leadership, National Network for Immigrants and Refugee Rights, the Southwest Workers' Union, and members of prisoners families will be traveling to Pecos to carry on their protest along with to mark the anniversary of the first uprising.
What: Vigil at Reeves County Detention Center
When: 1 pm, Saturday, December 12
Where: Across highway from Pecos Municipal Airport, west of Highway 17 and south of Interstate I-20