School of the Americas Watch Convergence at the Mexico/US Border: Rallying for an End to Detention

soaw eloy

FLORENCE, AZ-Throughout the history of resistance to the Eloy Detention Center, today’s rally held outside the facility will go down as one of the largest according to organizers from Puente Arizona, a migrant rights group.  As part of the School of the Americas Watch annual gathering, activists from several countries descended near the detention center to call attention to what they and Puente call the deadliest migrant prison in the US.   Fourteen deaths in 13 years have been documented by Puente and 150 nationwide.  This action came after another hunger strike at another immigration detention center in Pennsylvania-Berks Family Center-also drew attention to conditions inside immigration prisons.

In 2015, Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva called on the US Department of Justice to investigate alleged violence at the prison.  That call came at a time when Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun was found dead on May 20, 2015 in an isolation cell in Eloy.  His autopsy reported the death as an asphyxiation, but troubling to the public is that his own sock was found to be the weapon.  His family pushed for an investigation after refusing to accept Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) version of the death.   Supporters who are investigating the death criticized the over 30 minutes in lag time for emergency medical services to respond to Deniz-Sahagun and the “inadequate mental health treatment offered this man who was deemed at risk to kill himself.”  They called for the release of video footage of the incident, an independent review of the the autopsy, and an investigation into “abuse, and medical mental health neglect rampant at this facility.”

Others detained at Eloy reported another death of someone they witnessed being tased to death by Eloy guards that same year.

Concerns for the safety of those in the transgender community detained at Eloy continue.  In 2014, Mari Chuy Leal Gamino, a transgender woman was detained at Eloy and reported being raped by her cellmate.  Ongoing protests outside of Eloy have called for the security and “minimal levels of safety and dignity” at the privately run facility owned by Community Corrections of America (CCA).  According to Center for American Progress in 2014, LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual counterparts.

In 2015 about 200 men and 60 women at Eloy went on hunger strike to denounce the deaths and violence plus the conditions and treatment at the facility.  Hunger strikers reported retaliation for their act of protest.  Two were deported, and three were placed in segregation.  Families reported that phone calls and visits were cancelled for days.  Hungers strikers said that they were locked out of Eloy under the sun and over 100 degree heat without food or water on Day 1 of the strike.  Officials denied that a hunger strike was in place.

Tonight’s action was joined by hundreds who came to Arizona to participate in the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) annual gathering, this year for the first time moving from Fort Benning, Georgia to the Mexico/US Border.  SOAW organizers said the objective was to also draw attention to the root causes of migration in addressing the militarization and violence perpetuated and finance in Latin American countries by the US.

The rally began with music and speakers, but unique to this action, a street theater performance of formerly detained migrants demonstrated the various kinds of abuses alleged at Eloy.  Rigoberto Rodriguez who had been detained in 2014, talked of his experience with medical neglect when he was transferred to Eloy with a swollen prostate after months of being told by Eloy medical staff to “just drink water.”  After he eventually received surgery he reported only receiving three days of medication and no post-surgery care:

I ended up in Eloy on Sept 22, 2014. When I was transferred here from a different prison, I had an inflamed prostate. In the previous place I was held, they gave me medication. When I got here they took that from me. They allowed me to be here 4 months without real treatment. So when they finally took me to the doctor my prostate was already very inflamed, I couldn’t urinate so I needed surgery because I almost got cancer. After surgery I was back in Eloy after 3 days, I had to clean my own wounds and attend to myself post-surgery. They only gave me 3 days of medication even though they [should have] given me medication for weeks. They neglected to do so but when I got out they gave me the actual medication I needed but neglected to do so for the 14 months I was there. Now I’m suffering the consequences because I need to have the operation again. When I was in pain and went to see the doctor they would tell me just drink water but water doesn’t heal.
I put in many grievances but I could only do it in Spanish so they were ignored. Now I’m with Puente because I want to ensure that all those people who have been neglected medically will get justice and we can support them.
Berta Avila who had been detained when she was pregnant pointed to medical neglect at Eloy as contributing to the loss of her baby:
The reason I wanted to be a pregnant character [in the play] is because I lost a child inside.  I had a lot of pain and they only gave me water for my labor pains. This is not just about my son, this affects thousands of people.  I want to engage people who are not involved politically; you have the power to change these policies.
People inside have a terrible time. They neglect to give us medication and the right medical treatment.  It is torture to live in a detention center.  I want you to see the real pain.  It’s not a movie, it’s not a play, it is real life and we cannot let it continue.
After speakers and performances, activists walked the short distance from the stage to the sidewalk bordering the detention center while holding candles and sparklers as dusk set in.  The group chanted loudly after reports from those formerly detained who said that protesters had been heard from inside of the facility at earlier protests.  Tonight protesters and detainees communicated with each other as well.   Those on the inside responded to those on the outside by blocking and unblocking the light from the cells using a bed sheet to cover the window and then letting the light shine through as if to send the message that chants of support were being heard inside, “We had the chants and the candles and they had the sheets and the windows.”  One protester said that it was a powerful moment because the groups were communicating with each other “censor free.”
Juan Miguel Cornejo who had been formerly incarcerated at Eloy in his speech to protesters,
“We’re glad you’re here. We’re a small committee [of formally incarcerated at Eloy], but with a big heart. We come every [week] to visit our people and investigate how people are treated. We check on them to make sure they are doing okay. We see how people are treated, how they are hit.  We see broken ribs.  We see medical neglect.  We see all kinds of abuse.  We’re really sad because we see things are not improving.
They [guards] are getting more aggressive. People with too many chronic illnesses. We don’t want the same thing that happened to our brother, Jose de Jesus. We don’t want more deaths. We want a right to life.”



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