Arizona prisoners on lockdown amid hunger strike

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 20 (IPS) - Bad food is not the only reason thousands of mostly pre-trial detainees have been going on an intermittent two-week hunger strike in Arizona’s Maricopa County jails.

Alleged poor medical care and mistreatment by jailers are motivating the protest by at least 1,500 inmates in four jails, according to human rights activists who visited the detainees.

'They are treated worse than animals,' said Daisy Rios, 22, the wife of an immigrant prisoner who has participated in the protest.

Arizona is ground zero for the nation’s divisive immigration debate. The border state is the gateway for half of all human and drug smuggling into the rest of the United States.

The Maricopa County jail system, administered by Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, holds about 9,000 inmates, 70 percent of whom are pre-trial detainees.

The country’s self-proclaimed 'toughest' sheriff is famous for housing prisoners in tents, giving them pink underwear and feeding them what he claims are 30-cent meals. But he’s recently been in the spotlight of a national uproar over his tactics to crack down on illegal immigration by conducting traffic stops and raiding businesses.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is currently under investigation by the federal Justice Department over allegations of racial profiling and civil rights violations. MCSO is also the subject of a 30-year-old lawsuit over jail conditions, including the quality of the food.

Lydia Guzman, president of Respect/Respeto, a local organisation that documents civil and human rights abuses, has been visiting the prisoners.

'They’re tremendously organised,' she told IPS. Guzman met with mostly immigrant detainees who said the jailers intimidate them, they are not provided appropriate medical care and their food is rotten, stale and sometimes expired.

But immigrant advocates argue the issue at stake is more than just 'nasty' food.

'It’s a whole series of dehumanising techniques by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and MCSO,' said Salvador Reza, organizer of the Puente pro-immigrant movement. 'Especially now that a big number of the population is there because of their undocumented (immigrant) status.'

'They are not criminals, they are workers,' he added.

In a letter to a family member, one inmate wrote, 'In the jails we have to tolerate bad food, put up with foul language used by the guards, and if we have something to say we stay silent for fear of reprisals.'

On Monday, Arpaio placed at least 4,200 prisoners in an indefinite security lockdown, alleging that Hispanic inmates were intimidating other detainees so they would refuse to eat. 'I was concerned about inmates causing harm to other inmates,' said Arpaio. 'We won’t tolerate violence in jails.'

The ongoing lockdown means detainees have to remain in their cells all day long, without being allowed to receive visitors – including their attorneys - or make any phone calls.

'It appears that they’re seeking to reduce any public, known complaints about the operations in the jails by locking people down and eliminating visitations,' said Dan Pochoda, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Arizona.

The ACLU is one party in a lawsuit against MCSO related to jail conditions. Pochoda said the ACLU is looking into the situation and might take legal action if it’s proven this is a form of retaliation against the inmates for joining the strike.

The first hunger strike started on May 2 after a nine-kilometre march that ended outside the Durango jail complex to denounce alleged abuse of immigrant women in the county jails. At least 200 women participated in Estrella Jail, according to a recent report by MCSO.

The march organised by Puente focused on the case of an immigrant woman whose arm was allegedly broken by jailers and another who was the subject of excessive use of force during a raid conducted by MCSO.

Currently inmates in three separate jail facilities are participating: Lower Buckeye Jail, Towers and Fourth Avenue Jail.

'We don’t believe that we caused this, however, by us demonstrating in front of the jail we brought courage to them who were planning to do it,' said Reza. 'It surprised us, we had no contact with them at all.'

Arpaio holds the organisers responsible for being catalysts of the strike.

'It’s been escalating ever since,' he said. He also argued that the elimination of salt in the food, recommended by a dietician, could be instigating the discontent. A judge recently ordered that the food must comply with national standards imposed by the Department of Agriculture.

'They happen to be in a jail,' said Arpaio. 'What are you supposed to do with those who are innocent, put them in the Hilton Hotel?'

Yet some county officials are raising concerns about the inmates’ health.

'People have been on a hunger strike for about the last two weeks off and on, and it is being held very quiet. I have asked two days ago for a health and welfare check,' said Mary Rose Wilcox, Maricopa County District 5 supervisor.

Wilcox, who is part of an elected governmental board that administers the county, has met with Justice Department investigators and will provide evidence about this situation in the jails for their probe into patterns of practice.

'This is a horrible precedent for the county. Unfortunately, he’s [Arpaio] an elected official and can dictate policy, but when it comes to health, we can intervene,' she said.

Outside the jails, family and community members have been holding candlelight prayer vigils in support of the prisoners on strike.

'What goes on in there is unbearable,' said Florencia Gonzalez, the mother of an inmate from Mexico. She said her son told his family that prisoners are held in small rooms with rats and roaches as they wait for long periods of time to be transported to court.

Ruben Silva, a 20-year-old who was released Tuesday night from the Fourth Avenue Jail, attested to that. 'They overcrowd rooms that are 20 by 10 feet with 30 people,' he said.

'Upstairs (referring to a section of the jail) nobody is eating. They have some nasty food,' he said.

He said during the three days he was there for an unpaid traffic ticket, he only ate oranges. He was fed twice a day, and the meal consisted of two stale loafs of bread, peanut butter and often expired juice.

Silva heard about the hunger strike as soon as he entered the jail by word of mouth, but said that those who are participating are housed in a different area.

Willie, a woman who was released at the same time, and asked that her last name be withheld, also complained that she had to wait up to 15 days to receive her medication for high blood pressure.

'It’s just horrible the way they treat people in there,' she said. 'Guards are disrespectful, they curse at you.'