‘Man Without a Country’ Describes Conditions at Gadsden Detention Center

Awot Negash
Awot Negash’s troubles with U.S. immigration officials began in 2001 and spiraled two years ago when Immigration and Enforcement officials knocked on the door of his suburban Washington, D.C., home.

He eventually wound up in a controversial immigrant detention center in Gadsden.

When Negash’s parents left Eritrea in 1974 to escape political turmoil, he says, they went to Saudi Arabia, where he was born. The family left Saudi Arabia and moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where they remain. His parents became citizens.

Eritrea is now a dictatorship in northeast Africa on the coast of the Red Sea and a target for human rights groups worldwide, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Negash is a man without a country. He says he fears going back to Eritrea because of his father’s political leanings. Even though he was born in Saudi Arabia, he was not considered a Saudi citizen because, he says, his father was not a Saudi citizen.

From 2001 to 2003, Negash applied for U.S. citizenship under the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, he says. After repeatedly submitting the same documentation, Negash says, he was allowed to take a written test, the precursor to citizenship, and he passed the test. But Negash says that when he went back for the swearing-in, he was told his paperwork was not in order.

Two years ago, ICE officers knocked on Negash’s door in suburban Washington, and arrested him. He was first taken to Farmville Va., to a regional jail that houses detainees for ICE.

“The ICE stuff was new to me,” he says.

While at Farmville, Negash applied for a cancellation of his removal from the United States, but an immigration judge in Virginia denied the request and ordered him deported to Eritrea.

He appealed to the Board of Immigration, and the appeal was denied. “It was like going to the police to complain about the police,” he says. He spent 11 months at Farmville.

“Inmates could go outside. There were activities, although limited,” he says.

Then he was moved to the Etowah County detention center in Gadsden in August 2018.

Negash was placed in a unit of cells with about 130 more detainees.

“There were three units used for ICE,” he says. “Two about the same size for 130 or so at full capacity, and the other a smaller unit for 30 to 60.

“We had no air (conditioning) in our unit for a month,” Negash says. “When the air was cut back on, we still had no air for another month” because of the tiered cells. “So it’s hot, 90 something outside, and we have heat pumping into our cells.

“The place is just a dump,” Negash says. He and his cellmates were moved to another unit (Unit 6), which he described as “a dump within a dump.”

“There was open sewage. It stank, and we were in eight-man cells with no bathroom because it didn’t work. There were common bathrooms in common areas, but they were filthy and didn’t work, and they were by the tables where we had to eat. There were huge cockroaches.”

The detainee unit was moved again. “The county guys (inmates) got unit 6,” Negash says.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest

“To say Etowah is inefficient doesn’t do it justice. To say it is unorganized doesn’t do it justice. To say it is chaotic doesn’t do it justice. It is dysfunctional,” Negash says. The food was better at Etowah than at Farmville, he says, but portions were small. “If you didn’t have people who put money in your commissary account, you went hungry,” he says.

He says jail officials sent inmate mail “when they felt like it. It took 10 days for mail to reach Hoover from Gadsden. It took three weeks for my mother to get the Mother’s Day card that I sent her. Granted, it didn’t happen all the time, but the only real way to ensure that your mail was immediately sent out was to mail via priority mailing, which cost $7 per envelope.

“We did that because the facility would then have to provide us with a receipt indicating the date and time that they mailed it out. Guys were forced to put up the money because so much of the mail that we sent was time sensitive because of court deadlines.”

Negash was released from Etowah in July through a writ of habeas corpus filed by Jessica Vosburgh of Adelante Alabama, a human rights advocacy group with an office in Hoover.

“I was lucky when I was released; I had a plan,” he says. “But what about others when they are released? What are they released to?I have been in this country for 30 years. I went to elementary, middle, high school and college in this country. I didn’t do a thing to deserve this.”

Manuel Duran, 43, a Spanish language journalist from Memphis who spent 15 months at Etowah and at a Louisiana detention center, also has described conditions at both facilities as “inhumane.”

Duran was arrested in 2018 and released last month after his lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Adelante Alabama Worker Center persuaded the Board of Immigration Appeal to reopen his case. He was released on bond, according to a CNN report.

For two months, detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama had only water hoses with which to bathe, Duran told The Associated Press last month.

“At Etowah, for two weeks, for no reason, the heater was turned on to its full capacity,” Duran said. “This happened during the summer, and it was very difficult to sleep.” Duran also said there were no recreation facilities at Etowah and that detainees “were locked up without being able to see the sunlight.”

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox challenged Duran’s assertion about bathing with hoses. In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Duran said: “If that were true, I would simply ask you, ‘Does it seem remotely plausible that you would not have heard about it at the time?’”

Cox said outdoor recreation at Etowah takes place within the detention center, but the recreation area has a fenced roof that is open to the outside.

Duran’s lawyers are now concentrating on his request for asylum, said Gracie Willis, one of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s attorneys.