Eight detainees being held at the Teller County Jail for Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they started a hunger strike this week to protest their transfer from a Denver-area detention center.
The men have been held in the medium-security area of the jail since July 11, when they were moved without apparent explanation from the Contract Detention Facility in Aurora.
The detainees are demanding to be returned to the Aurora center, said Carolyn Jennings, a volunteer with Casa de Paz, or House of Peace. The Denver organization provides jail visits, transportation, emotional support and other services to immigrants locked in detention and their families.
According to Jennings, the detainees want to go back to the other location because they have been subject to racist remarks, obscenities, threats of physical violence and what they say are difficult conditions including inedible food.
“They are in jail with criminals, who are treating them poorly,” she said.
Jennings shared emails with The Gazette that she received from detainee Janamjet Singh Sodhi, who goes by the name “Jimmy.”
He wrote that the food is so awful he has lost 10 pounds in the past month. As of this week, he said he is refusing food or water.
Teller County Sheriff's Office spokesman Greg Couch said he could not comment on any issues related to the detainees.
Paige J. Hughes, spokesperson for ICE’s Western Region, denied Jennings' claims, saying no detainee is refusing to eat.
“We do not have any detainees on a hunger strike in the Denver, Colorado, field office area of responsibility, which includes Teller County,” she said in an email. “The health, safety, and welfare of those in our care remain a top priority and concern for the agency.”
Under ICE policy, detainees who do not eat for 72 hours are referred to medical staff for mental and physical evaluation and possible treatment, with food and liquids administered either voluntarily or involuntarily and continued monitoring.
Hughes said detainees can present grievances under a system that every facility must follow, which includes a process to review complaints, investigate and respond.
Reports about staff misconduct, physical or sexual abuse, civil rights violations or unresolved problems in detention also can be made directly to ICE, she said.
The agency's policies “include guarantees against any form of reprisal or retaliation,” Hughes said.
Sodhi told Jennings that the eight detainees have been separated into two groups of four and placed in different sections of the jail. They are in lockdown in their cells for the majority of the day, he said.
The men have no access to lawyers or computers, as they did at the Aurora facility, Jennings said.
She befriended 44-year-old Sodhi, who’s from India, one year ago and has visited him regularly during his detention in Colorado, which she said came after he was convicted of a white-collar financial crime and served 51 months in a federal prison in California.
ICE officials took Sodhi into custody on the day he was released in 2017, Jennings said. He is appealing his case and cannot be deported under a federal stay of deportation.
Some of the detainees have no criminal record, Jennings said, and don’t want to be with jail inmates who have been engaging in what they call abusive behavior.
“That’s their only demand — to be sent back to Aurora,” she said. “It’s like being asked to be put back in hell, but at least they had more resources and felt safer.”
The ACLU of Colorado last year released a report on the Aurora detention facility, run by the for-profit GEO Group, saying the center “violates the basic human rights of mainly asylum-seeking detainees, through medical neglect and abuse,” which the organization said led to two deaths.
Colorado Springs activist Bill Sulzman said rumors are that the men were sent to the Teller County Jail as a punitive measure because they were organizing within the facility.
"This whole thing with ICE thinking these people don't have rights doesn't sit well with me," Sulzman said. "It's an important issue because they are being unfairly treated and somebody ought to be accountable."
A wife of another ICE detainee from Aurora led a protest on July 17 at the Teller County Jail, calling for all the detainees to be released. At the protest, she said her daughter misses her father, and she cannot make the three-hour drive to visit her husband.
The Teller County Sheriff’s Office said several groups joined the protest, including people wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, and at one point a fight with counter-protesters broke out.