Alabama Site for Detained Immigrants Has History of Abuse Charges, Efforts to Close It

Marcos Baltazar

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After immigration officers detained Marcos Baltazar and his son, Juan, in Homewood one morning last week, the two men were in the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden by nightfall.

Their destination spotlights the Etowah center, a controversial facility adjoining the county jail in Gadsden where federal authorities detain immigrants.

The center has drawn critics’ protests and attempts to close it for years, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office itself tried to close the facility in 2010. That effort hit a maelstrom of resistance from local political officials and their supporters in Congress.

In the case of Baltazar and his son, Adelante Alabama protested two days later outside Etowah center against their arrests. Marcos Baltazar is a member of the board of directors of Adelante Alabama, a human rights group based in Hoover that has been active in obtaining the release of immigrant detainees.

Baltazar entered this country from Guatemala three years ago. Though undocumented, he was allowed to stay in the country with his son, who was a minor at the time, if he periodically checked in with ICE, according to Adelante Alabama. His son has turned 18, so he is no longer considered a minor by ICE.

The two were detained last week when they went to the ICE office in Homewood for a routine check-in, a provision of their being allowed to stay in the country, according to ICE spokesman Bryan Cox.

ICE’s Attempt to Remove Detainees After Complaints About the Center

In 2010, ICE officials themselves tried to remove the agency’s detainees from the Etowah jail, according to published news reports and a Shadow Prisons report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Lawyers Guild and Adelante.

ICE said the decision to transfer 350 of its inmates from Etowah was to save money. But human rights groups, including Families for Freedom and Shut Down Etowah, say the decision came about after numerous complaints were filed with the agency about overcrowding, inadequate health care and excessive force used by jail personnel.

The most recent development in the controversy over the Etowah center involves reports from the Department of Homeland Security about the center.

Several Alabama groups asked for the reports, citing the Freedom of Information Act. After DHS claimed those reports were not subject to the FOIA, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Detention Watch Network, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Immigrant Defense Project and Southerners on New Ground filed a lawsuit in 2017.

DHS in March of this year released 127 pages of highly redacted records.

Supporter of the Shut Down Etowah group pickets in Gadsden, with the Etowah Center in the background

Among the findings:

* The condition of showers was dismal, with drains blocked by scum and “organic debris” and lights out.

* Indigent detainees were not able to access postage for legal and other correspondence.

* So-called kosher meals were not actually kosher, causing detainees who kept kosher to eat none or only part of their meals.

* The mental health officer was a radiology technician, and she appeared entirely unqualified. She was trained by her predecessor, who similarly had no mental health qualifications.

* All inmates, whatever size, were issued XL boxer shorts.

* When Etowah policies on paper appeared to follow national standards, detainees said the center did not follow the standards in practice.

* A 2015 memo stated there is no evidence that recommendations made in 2012 for improving conditions had been implemented.

Those records were 2012 and 2015 memos from DHS to ICE and four reports attached to the 2012 memo: one by a corrections specialist, another by a safety/environmental specialist, the third by a psychiatrist, and the fourth by a medical doctor.

In more detail, the 2012 document and 2015 follow-up report found:

Corrections Report: The investigator found that many Etowah policies did not comport with earlier national detention standards, and still more Etowah policies did not comply with the 2011 performance-based detention standards. Even where Etowah policies appeared to follow national detention standards on paper, complaints from detainees reflected that the center did not follow its own policies in practice.

For example, providing postage to indigent detainees for three pieces of general correspondence a week, and all legal correspondence, was one policy Etowah policy professed.  In practice, indigent detainees were not able to access postage. The report found major problems of access for detainees in segregation. While much of this information is redacted, one example is that detainees in segregation do not have adequate access to the law library.

Safety and Environmental Report: Detainees voiced “vigorous complaints” about the meals, and there were no dietician-certified diabetic meals. The so-called kosher meals were not actually kosher, causing detainees who kept kosher to eat none or only part of the meal.

Showers had no dividers, many drains were blocked with scum and organic debris, and lights were out. All detainees were issued XL boxers upon intake, regardless of what size they actually needed.

Mental Health Report: At the time of the report made in June 2012, there was only one mental health officer at Etowah. As a radiology technician, she appeared entirely unqualified; she was trained by her predecessor, who similarly had no mental health qualifications.  One doctor prescribed all the psychotropic medications to Etowah County detention center detainees, and he never met with detainees. He relied solely on notes from others to prescribe the medication. Detainees complained consistently about the lack of access to mental health care.

Medical Report: The only way detainees could access medical assistance was through written request, and the bulk of medical requests were responded to with written responses, including potentially serious complaints.

While most recommendations are redacted, one was not: “ECDC must make efforts to ensure that medically necessary medications are provided without gap. Such efforts would include staff training and supervisory alerts in the electronic health record.”

Although mostly redacted, the 2015 memo refers to the “deficiencies identified at Etowah through previous site visits and complaint investigations” and recommends that ICE “transition to the 2011 Performance Based National Detention standards.”

This strongly indicates that ICE practices at Etowah do not comport with these standards, according to the memo. “[W]e hope that you will take immediate action to address the recommendations contained in their memorandum.”

A corrections consultant who visited Etowah in 2012 said she found “excessive detainee transfer interfering with detainee immigration court matters; discrimination; retaliation; lack of access to law library and legal resources; excessive lockdowns; inadequate recreation access; ineffective detainee grievance procedures; overcrowding; difficult in making and receiving telephone calls; difficultly [sic] in sending outgoing mail; harassment by staff; and an inadequate visitation program.”

U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods in March ordered DHS to give him unredacted copies of those reports. He said the federal agencies “have advanced an argument which leads the court to conclude that their redactions of factual material may, despite being conducted in good faith, have nonetheless been overboard.”

The latest court action follows more than a decade of controversy over operation of the Etowah Center.

In 2008, ICE’s inspection reports noted deficiencies at the center, according to an NBC News report. An inspection report noted two suicides by county inmates within a six-month period. ICE records from that year also indicate that a female detainee tried to hang herself in her cell.

The jail food supply was the subject of an Etowah County grand jury investigation in 2010. Jurors concluded it was sufficient.

Federal immigration officials cited the high cost of transporting inmates to and from court, and the lack of access for staff, attorneys and inmate families because of the facility’s remote location.

Former Sheriff: Losing Etowah Money ‘Devastating”   

Former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin responded that the county would lose $5 million a year in federal money if detainees were removed from his jail. And losing the money would be “devastating,” he told reporters.

Voiding the deal, which generates approximately $5.2 million a year for the county, would mean “49 individuals losing their jobs only days before Christmas with no notice whatsoever,” the sheriff said, according to news reports.

The county also was still paying off about $3 million in debt associated with an earlier jail expansion. The federal government had paid 62 percent of the $13.5 million spent to expand the jail.

“Without the ICE contract, Etowah County will not be able to meet these obligations,” Entrekin said.

Etowah County detention center.

In 2012, NBC News reported that Gary Mead, ICE’s executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations, wrote: “I do not believe we will be allowed to leave Etowah without serious repercussions against our budget. …. Discretion may be the better part of valor here.”

He was right. The state’s congressional delegation, led by Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions and U.S. Reps. Robert Aderholt and Mike Rogers, blocked the cancellation of the contract, according to news sources.

Rogers said this week that he stands by his decision to keep the facility open. Efforts to reach Shelby and Aderholt were unsuccessful. Sessions is no longer a U.S. senator.

By June 2011, ICE had developed a proposal that satisfied the Alabamians. Administration of the detention center was switched to the New Orleans Regional Office, enabling the transfer to Etowah of long-term detainees held at different facilities throughout the Southeast, according to an NBC News report. In emails, ICE reasoned these detainees have often exhausted legal remedies and would not need to be transferred regularly to immigration courts hundreds of miles away. ICE said detainees at Etowah could fight their cases by mail or await their deportation, according to emails.

The female detainees housed at Etowah were moved to other facilities.

This effort was a prominent, public and politically sensitive instance of trying to close the Etowah detention facility, but not the only one.

Long History of Efforts to Close 

Efforts to close the center over the years include:

*In 2012, 300 local, national and international advocacy groups sent a letter to President Obama asking him to close 10 detention centers, including the one in Gadsden.

A copy of the letter can be found here.

“As disturbing as the conditions described in these 10 reports are, they are only the tip of the iceberg,” the letter said. “It is unacceptable to be spending billions in taxpayer dollars every year to contract with corporations that perpetuate human rights abuses against this vulnerable population at a time of fiscal crisis.”

*In 2017, Freedom for Immigrants, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, filed a federal civil rights complaint with the DHS’s civil rights office claiming Etowah is the worst county-run immigration detention facility in the nation. The complaint alleged sexual abuse, assault and harassment at U.S. immigration facilities along with a lack of adequate government investigation into those cases. In the complaint, the group lists Etowah sixth for sexual and physical assaults behind five other detention centers in Louisiana, Texas, California and Washington State.

The complaint can be found online here.

*In 2018, the National Immigration Justice Center and Detention Watch Network released a report saying “ICE has ignored or evaded basic congressional guidance regarding detention standards, inspections and contracting, affirms the picture of an out of control and unaccountable.”

The report can be found here.

*Also in 2018, the DHS inspector general criticized ICE for not forcing detention facility contractors, such as Etowah County, to hold deficient facilities accountable through financial penalties. ICE has issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from complying with certain standards.

However, ICE officials concurred with all five recommendations from the inspector general’s report, proposed steps to update processes and asked for guidance on how to hold detention facility contractors accountable for failing to meet performance standards.

ICE officials in New Orleans and Atlanta have refused to divulge the current number of inmates at Etowah. County Sheriff Jonathon Horton also refused to answer questions about the facility. During a panel discussion earlier this year, Horton was asked about the ICE contract with his jail. He said he could not comment. “I am simply prohibited from going into depth” on ICE, he said.

History of County-Federal Contracts 

The Etowah center as a federal holding jail dates back to 1997, when the county, the U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Naturalization Service agreed for the county to house federal prisoners for $766,500 a year through an intergovernmental agreement.

In 2003, the county agreed to rent ICE approximately 3,600 square feet of “detention/equipment” space for approximately $5,000 a month.

The agreement has been updated through the years, and now the federal government pays $45 per day each for the county to house about 300 detainees. It is one of the cheapest rates among the 210 facilities nationwide used to house detainees.

The Etowah facility remains a bargain for ICE, which pays daily rates nearly three times higher at similar centers in some northern states. The current average per diem there is $164, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse files at Syracuse University.

Besides per diem, the county gets reimbursed for expenses incurred from transporting detainees. ICE also rents offices in Gadsden, and pays officers assigned to detainees $17 an hour, according to DHS.

Read more on the detention center and immigration:

Man Without a Country’ Describes Conditions at Gadsden Detention Center