Two days after Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston announced an end to the contract with ICE that housed detained undocumented immigrants, Mayor Tom Butt was invited to tour the facility on Thursday with two city councilmembers and two journalists. In his e-forum newsletter, Mayor Butt detailed his experience:
By Mayor Tom Butt
After months of requesting and being repeatedly refused, I was finally welcomed at the Contra Costa Sheriff’s West Contra Costa Detention Facility yesterday along with eight other people representing the City of Richmond and two journalists, Sara Hossaini from KQED and Otis Taylor, Jr. from the Chronicle. Two of the Richmond people were City Council members, Ada Recinos and Ben Choi.
Our tour guide was Sheriff’s Captain Tom Chalk. Irene Perdomo, one of several bi-lingual members of the Mayor’s Office staff, helped me with translations when needed.
From a physical perspective, I think we were all impressed with the facility. It actually looks more like a community college campus than what we think of as a jail. Inmates are walking all around, going to classes, work and other activities and appointments. The center of the complex is a nearly 4-acre landscaped “quadrangle” maintained by inmates.
It has a central kitchen, laundry, libraries, classrooms and a sign shop and frame shop where inmates can learn skills.
The residential portion of the facility consists of four “pods,” one of which is exclusively for male ICE detainees and one of which is for women, including ICE detainees. Each detainee has a sleeping room, but the toilet facilities are shared. Each pod has a dining area, lounge and other services. Inmates are generally free to come and go from their rooms, and they each have a room key so that they can lock their doors when they are out.
ICE detainees, men and women, all wear lime green outfits. Otherwise, men wear gold outfits, and women wear dark green outfits.
The various jobs inside are voluntary and pay no money, but those who take them get additional perks and privileges. All of the landscaping appeared to be done by ICE detainees, maybe an indication of their motivation to work hard.
We were not restricted from talking with ICE inmates, and we chatted up groups of both men and women. Some spoke English well, which is not surprising because they had been in the U.S. for many years. Other spoke Spanish either because they were not proficient in English or did not feel confident. There were several bi-lingual Spanish speakers in our group, which facilitated communication.
What I was most interested in was probing reports of abuse. The story we got from the men was quite different than that from the women.
The men we talked to, while critical of ICE for many reasons, had only good things to say about the West Contra Costa Detention Center. They said they were treated well and they appreciated the various educational programs and other opportunities. Some had been in ICE detention in other locations where they were treated poorly. They were greatly concerned about the closure of the West County facility as an ICE center, and they were worried they would end up somewhere less hospitable.
The women we talked to said that some of the deputies were racist and verbally abused them. I asked them about the reports of being locked in their rooms and not allowed to use the toilets. They said that was true, that sometimes they were locked in and were supposed to beat on their doors to be let out to use the bathroom. Sometimes, they said, they would not be allowed out.
I talked to Captain Chalk about those claims. He denied the claims, explaining that several times a day, there is a headcount, and inmates were confined to their rooms for a few minutes – 20 minutes max, and that of they had to use the bathroom, they could knock on their door and would be allowed out.
I don’t know which version is accurate, but there is clearly a divide between the men’s accounts and the women’s accounts, possible a result of a combination of gender and ethnic related clashes of both staff and inmates that engender split perceptions.
One thing I took away from the tour is that there are both upsides and downsides of closing the ICE facility, and there has been little discussion of the downsides. The fact that family visitation will be more difficult just came up the last few days, and the poorer quality of care at other facilities is the first I have heard of this issue.
Considering the generally good impressions that visitors had, I am baffled as to why the sheriff has been so reluctant to allow visitors.