"All we are asking is to be transferred back to the Aurora facility. We are not asking for a release. They have the authority to transfer us immediately if we want," says Jimmy Sodhi, a 45-year-old ICE detainee.
Sodhi is part of a group of eight ICE detainees who have been housed in the same dormitory at the Teller County Jail since being transferred there from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility one month ago. Sodhi and the other ICE detainees began the hunger strike on the morning of August 10 to protest what they allege are significantly worse conditions at the Teller County Jail as compared to those at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which is the usual destination for ICE detainees in Colorado.
"As a Sikh, I'm not allowed to wear my Sikh bracelet, I'm not allowed to cover my head. If I have to pray, it's required for me to cover my head. I'm told to cover my head with a pillowcase or a towel," says Sodhi, who has been in ICE custody since March 2017 and is currently in the appeals process of his deportation case stemming from a fraud conviction for insider trading. "That is very demeaning, very disrespectful."
Sodhi notes that he was allowed to wear his turban at the Aurora detention facility, but has been told by staff at the Teller County Jail that he cannot retrieve his turban from his personal belongings. Same with prayer books, Sodhi adds, which he hasn't been able to obtain, being told by staff that "there's no chaplain here and we don't have those here."
A spokesperson for the Teller County Sheriff's Office referred questions to ICE. Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson, notes that ICE regulations permit the wearing of religious headwear, such as turbans, in all areas of a detention facility, "subject to the normal considerations of the safety, security and orderly operation of the facility, including inspection by staff. Religious headwear and other religious property shall be handled with respect at all times, including during the intake process."
Additionally, Sodhi contends that he and other ICE detainees at the Teller County Jail have been subjected to racial harassment perpetrated by non-ICE detainees staying in the same dormitory.
"Personally, to me, they've said, 'Hey, sand ni**er, go to Iraq.' And I'm like, 'I'm not even from that country,'" Sodhi, an Indian national who has lived in the U.S. since 1989, says. "A couple of the people have been threatened by violence, also. So far, nothing has happened. That's mental torture."
Carina Ramirez, who every day speaks with her husband, Luis, one of the ICE detainees in Teller County Jail, says her husband told her similar stories about being on the receiving end of racial abuse from non-ICE detainees.
"He did tell me about people being really racist there. Telling them about how they need to go back to their country. I don't see why they have ICE detainees with criminal detainees," Ramirez says.
When asked about how ICE will address these allegations of racial harassment perpetrated by non-ICE detainees against ICE detainees, Smock responds, "ICE has a no-tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegation seriously." Smock also cites various avenues available to detainees to report concerns, including local ICE staff, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, and the American Bar Association, and notes that directions for where to submit complaints are "prominently displayed throughout all ICE detention facilities."
Adding to his angst, Sodhi contends that he and the other detainees don't even know why they're being housed in the Teller County Jail, which has an agreement with ICE to house immigrant detainees.
Asked why the detainees have been sent there, Smock says, "To accommodate various operational demands, ICE routinely transfers detainees within its detention network based on available resources and the needs of the agency or to remove them to their home country."
Although the phrase "various operational demands" is ambiguous and may or may not relate to the threat of COVID-19, it's clear that there are now significantly more beds vacant at the Aurora detention facility as compared to months ago.
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers and immigrant-rights advocates were sharply critical of ICE for not releasing detainees with minor or zero criminal convictions, saying that by continuing to detain them, ICE was putting their lives at risk.
In Colorado, multiple detainees filed lawsuits demanding release, citing the fact that they had medical vulnerabilities. Only a few of those lawsuits actually led to detainees being released, while others were denied.
But even without judges from the U.S. District Court of Colorado compelling the release of detainees, Colorado ICE officials are lowering the population at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which has been the site of positive COVID cases for 24 detainees and 16 staffers.
On February 24, the office of Congressman Jason Crow, which conducts weekly accountability visits at the Aurora facility, counted 570 ICE detainees there. On August 5, the weekly accountability report showed 265 ICE detainees at the Aurora facility, which has a 1,532-detainee capacity. The facility also houses around 50 U.S. Marshal detainees on any given day, meaning that the total detainee population at the facility represents around one-fifth its total capacity.
Where, exactly, those detainees are going is another matter. The Crow staffer conducting the inspections asks on a weekly basis whether those that left the facility have been released into the community, deported or moved to another facility. ICE never answers those questions.
However, what's apparent is that ICE's total detained population across the country has dropped precipitously over the past year, going from a daily average of over 50,165 in fiscal year 2019 to 21,494 as of August 7.
Sodhi and the other detainees plan to continue the hunger strike until they're transferred back to Aurora. Smock points out that ICE doesn't call refusing to eat a hunger strike until a detainee has missed nine consecutive meals.
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Aside from the allegations about racial harassment from non-ICE detainees and a lack of accommodation for his religious requirements, Sodhi also says that Teller County Jail staff have offered him and other detainees little in the form of sanitizing solutions. "In Aurora, they were giving us cleaning solutions on a daily basis that we could use to wipe down tables. Here, we don't have any of that," says Sodhi, adding that nobody cleans the tables in the common area, and that in his cell, he uses only soap, water and paper towels to clean.
And just as it's hard to keep their living area clean, the same goes for the clothes the detainees have been wearing at the jail, according to both Sodhi and Ramirez via testimony she's heard from her husband.
"He said at [the Aurora facility], they would get extra clothes to have. I guess now they don't give them extra clothes," says Ramirez.
Adds Sodhi, "All our clothes are used clothes, used boxers. The towels stink and haven't been washed properly. They change our clothing every two days, and our bedsheets and towels are changed every week. ... It is horrendous. Just horrendous. All we want is just to be moved back."