Immigrant rights activists held a vigil outside of Adelanto Detention Center on Sunday, June 25. / Photo: Mariah Castañeda

On Sunday, June 25, I watched as a group of nearly 50 people, many of them family members of detained immigrants, waited for hours in the sweltering 100-degree heat outside of Adelanto Detention Center, a privately operated federal prison that holds undocumented immigrants in San Bernardino, CA. They had come to Adelanto expecting to see their loved ones during scheduled visitation hours. Instead, they were apparently told by prison officials that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the facility due to the presence of a small group of immigrant rights activists – about 15 people – who were holding a vigil across the street.

The temporary barring of visitors that I witnessed last Sunday at Adelanto seems similar to what happened a week prior, when the facility was put on lockdown after an interfaith group of about 60 religious leaders and attorneys formed a prayer circle outside of the prison. As a result of that action, family members and attorneys were stopped from visiting detainees, according an article in the Huff Post by Christina Fiahlo of CIVIC, a human rights group focused on immigration detention centers.

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Apparently, this is a trend. In January, CIVIC filed a formal civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of past and present detainees, alleging that Adelanto Detention Facility had violated federal standards by barring family members and attorneys from visiting people in custody, on multiple occasions.

Why does this matter?

First, it’s important to understand why activists have been keeping such a watchful eye on Adelanto Detention Center. Since April, three prisoners have died while in custody there — one died from internal bleeding, and another had been receiving treatment for multiple health conditions. But the red flags at Adelanto go back further: Inmates there have been organizing hunger strikes since at least 2015 to call attention to what they claim are poor medical services and the mistreatment of inmates by staff members at the facility. Also in 2015, a dozen U.S. Congress members were concerned enough to write a letter to ICE stating their opposition to an expansion of the Adelanto facility due to concerns over the prison’s medical practices.

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Despite all the scrutiny, getting accurate information about conditions at Adelanto — including hunger strikes by detainees that have happened, and may still be happening — has been tough to come by. Earlier this month, Mother Jones reported that 9 detainees who were part of an immigrant caravan fleeing Central America in search of asylum, had gone on a hunger strike to call attention to unreasonably high bail and inadequate medical care. That strike, according to later reports, ended within days, and only included half a dozen people. The LA Times also reported the story, but added that 30 women detainees at the facility told officials that they were planning a hunger strike of their own. The hunger strike by women detainees, an ICE spokesperson told the Times, was called off after ICE personnel met with the women to discuss their concerns.

As recently as Friday, June 30, ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice said in a call with this reporter that there are currently no inmates on hunger strike at Adelanto.

“We consider a hunger strike [to be] 72 hours without food,” said Kice. “We have not had a single inmate reach this point.”

Those comments conflict with second-hand accounts I’ve received over the last week from people who claim to have had direct contact with detainees.

An activist, Tristan Call of the group Sureñxs En Acción, said that a spouse of one of the detainees in Adelanto told him “there are as many as 300 people on strike in one particular block, for similar reasons [as the original 8 hunger strikers]: bad treatment, large bonds.” Call said that his group has been trying to get more information, but “GEO is blocking communication.”

I also spoke to a 22-year-old man, “Tony,” who was at Adelanto on June 25 to visit his father. Tony requested that I change his name because he feared for the safety of his dad. He said his father was beaten in the past after describing treatment he received at the Adelanto detention center during phone calls with his family. Tony said that his father has lost a considerable amount of weight due to the food, which he cannot digest, and that he has a heart condition that Tony says has been largely left untreated.

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“He keeps being denied proper medical treatment,” said Tony. “When he does receive medicine, it’s just [to calm him down], nothing to really help his condition.”

Tony claims his father is also participating in a hunger strike.

Others I spoke to on June 25 didn’t mention hunger strikes, but did share serious concerns about living conditions and the treatment of prisoners inside Adelanto.

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Roberto Corona, an activist with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, participated in last Sunday’s vigil. He claimed to have had direct contact with inmates at Adelanto, and recounted some of things that they alleged: Prison guards using pepper spray against hunger strikers; hunger strikers being beaten and placed in solitary confinement; and reports of inmates being given used underwear, sparking hygiene concerns.

Corona also said that detainees were being coerced by officials to not hunger strike. “The [hunger strikers] were told by ICE many lies,” he alleged. “That doing a hunger strike would not take them anywhere, that [the strike] was against the law and would affect their cases.”

Madeleine Zazueta, the daughter of a detainee, was among the visitors waiting to be allowed access to the facility last Sunday. She expressed concern for her father, who she said has been detained since April. According to Zazueta, her father, who has Type 1 Diabetes and needs insulin shots, was instead given pills to treat Type 2 Diabetes, an entirely different disease. “My dad is a little scared about it (his health condition), and he has seen a few inmates that have passed away because of medical reasons here in Adelanto,” said Zazueta.

Here is a video of my conversation with Zazueta:

The contradictions between official ICE statements and the accounts of activists and family members illustrate why visitation rights at Adelanto Detention Center matter: Without reliable access to the facility and the people inside, it’s difficult for loved ones, let alone journalists (I was also denied access to the facility during visitation hours last Sunday) to ascertain the truth. Instead, we’re left with conflicting statements from ICE and from activists and family members who have been in direct contact with people detained inside Adelanto.

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Another problem: Whether it was intentional or not, by citing the presence of activists and media as a reason for not allowing visitors, ICE is pitting family members of detainees against activists and press, essentially transferring responsibility for the canceled or delayed visitations onto immigrant rights activists and journalists.

So what’s really going on at Adelanto?

Until concerned family members, activists, and journalists are allowed reasonable access to detainees inside the facility and there is full transparency, we’ll ask ourselves that question.

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Mariah Castañeda reports for Rise Up: Be Heard, Fusion’s health journalism training and mentorship program for young people living in California. The program is supported by a partnership with The California Endowment.