Pandemic in Prison: Jonny and Eduardo, Yuba County Jail and ICE Detention Facility

Advocates are calling the COVID outbreak at the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, CA a “humanitarian catastrophe” – as of December 28, 2020, 86 people have tested positive for COVID in the county jail, and 5 people in ICE custody and 15 staff.

Our reporter Lucy Kang spoke to two men incarcerated in the ICE detention facility, “Jonny” and “Eduardo.” Their names have been changed here to protect them from retaliation by jail and ICE authorities.

“Jonny” is originally from Central America. His daughter is a US citizen, and his other family members also live in the United States. Jonny participated in the hunger strikes earlier this year, for which he says he faced retaliation. Jonny and other people in ICE detention are calling for eight demands from the jail, including providing N95 masks to every in custody, more transparency and communication, an end to transfers between housing units, and allowing for independent inspectors to conduct unannounced visits. We’ll post the full list of demands below the story. Jessica Yamane Moraga, attorney at Dolores Street Community Services, was the interpreter for this interview, which has been edited for time and clarity.

“Right now I am in my own cell. But around me are around 38 people in the same dorm.

But all of the 38 people around, they’re breathing the same air. And the guards within Yuba County Jail are bringing people who are coming from quarantine-designated pods into the pod [where I am being housed]. And then they take them out again. And they’re not providing the folks that remain in this pod with a reason for why they’re moving people.

I’ve been moved from unit to unit. I’m there for three days. Then I’m moved again. And officers don’t tell us why. The only reason I know what’s happening at all within Yuba County Jail is because we are telling our attorneys and advocates on the outside what’s happening. And then they’re providing us with information. But we’re not getting told anything by Yuba County Jail for why we’re being moved.

So we’re confused because we’re not getting anything in writing about whether we’re testing positive or negative for the coronavirus.

In reality, it’s not clean at all. It’s not adequate for anybody to be detained here. The cells are very dirty. There aren’t chemicals for cleaning. You have to pay for soap. And there aren’t papers to be able to wipe down the phones.

On this season. I’m thinking of more than anything, my daughter who’s five years old. Whenever I speak to her right now, she asks me for presents and asks me, when am I going to leave? And it breaks my heart because she’s still developing her consciousness. But I know that she understands what’s happening. And I worry for the impact that it’s having on her. And also for my mom and for my siblings.

I am very worried and shocked. I feel that I’m on a boat that is sinking, sinking and because they’re moving us all around. And I feel that I’ve been sentenced to death. This is going to be a bad Christmas, the worst, because I don’t know if I’m going to contract the virus and get sick – and maybe die.”

Our reporter Lucy Kang also spoke to Eduardo, who is currently in ICE detention in Yuba County, about the alarming and unhygienic conditions there. Eduardo was part of the hunger strikes that took place in the summer calling for better conditions during the pandemic and says he faced retaliation. He is not using his full name for fear of further retaliation. The following interview was edited. A quick content warning: the following story mentions a suicide attempt.

“Everybody fears for their life in here.

The last time they provided us with cloth masks was a little bit over two months ago. And we have to be washing them. And they wear out. They’re old. Some of the other detainees’ masks have ripped.

It’s impossible to social distance where I’m at. And sometimes we go weeks without getting any soap, which is really bad. Our families are doing bad out there. A lot of us don’t have funds, money for commissary to purchase soap to sanitize. We have floods in here, nasty water that smells really bad with feces. And we have to be the ones cleaning it.

It’s not safe at all, and it’s not okay that they have us housed here in the county jail with the county inmates that are coming in every day. And just because they tested negative yesterday doesn’t mean that they’re going to test negative today.  

One of the persons that has COVID is an older guy that’s like 60 years old. They moved him out of our dorm, my dorm where I’m at, to isolate him. And he caught the COVID over there because they put him with the County inmates. Now he has COVID. That’s really sad, more than anything.

It’s very bad in here. You know, this causes psychological effects, such as depression and anxiety, and that may cause people to try to harm themselves as a way to escape.

You know, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it many times. You know, people crying in their bunks, people abusing psych meds so they could sleep away the misery of reality. One time I witnessed a person trying to commit suicide by hanging himself off the sprinklers pipelines. And that was late at night. Thank God there was a few of us awake, you know, that prevent that from happening. But this is just a few things, a couple of things that I’m sharing with you, so you could see how bad it is in here.

So a few months ago we did a hunger strike. And I spoke up, and the way they retaliated against me was they weren’t giving me my mail. My mail was being returned to the sender. Being incarcerated, a way to communicate with people is writing letters. You know, you expect pictures, that’s how you see your loved ones.

And that psychologically affected me because now there’s that fear in me that they might still be doing that, or they could always do that whenever they want to. And I might not even find out. So that’s the way it psychologically affects me because now I have that, I’m afraid. And I feel like my hands tied up, that there’s nothing I could do.

Me personally, I’m the main bread winner of my house. My mother depends on me. She’s old, and she needs me out there. And she needs to get surgery, but she’s waiting for me to get out to get surgery because that would require her to stop working. And, the healing would be up to six months that she wouldn’t be able to work. And she can’t get that surgery because I’m not there to help and support her and take care of her. And it’s very hard. It’s very frustrating, you know? 

I’m sure a lot of us, a lot of people in here are in the same situation I am with their family. And it feels like we’re sinking, on a boat, and then we’re trying to get to the top and trying to survive the most that we can. 

And it’s very sad and frustrating that they don’t hear our voices. But nobody should, in this times of pandemic, should be detained in ICE custody because we’re not here paying for a crime. We’re here for a civil matter. We shouldn’t be here. A lot of us, we have been here most of our lives. Like myself, I’ve been here since I was eight years old. This is home. This is home. My life is here. You know, my loved ones are here. It’s not fair that they put our lives in danger, that we’re here, at risk of catching COVID because we’re illegal.

We’re all afraid. We fear for our lives. The only, the only way lives will be saved is to free everyone in ICE custody.”

Jonny, Eduardo and other people in ICE detention are calling for eight demands from the jail, including providing N95 masks to every in custody, more transparency and communication, an end to transfers between housing units, and allowing for independent inspectors to conduct unannounced visits.

List of demands from people in ICE custody at Yuba County Jail:

  • Free everyone in ICE custody
  • Provide N-95 Masks to all those in custody ASAP
  • Promptly communicate updates about COVID-19 spread to community members in ICE custody
  • Ensure regular, immediate communication between ICE and Yuba County Jail
  • Cease transfers between housing units
  • Reduce population so that people can actually socially distance
  • Honor legal and family calls at their exact, scheduled times 
  • Allow for an independent inspector to conduct unannounced inspections of conditions 

For more information on the campaign and advocacy around detainees at Yuba County jail, check out California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. 

Lucy Kang is a features reporter with KPFA Radio. Follow her on Twitter at @ThisIsLucyKang

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