Testimony from transgender asylum seeker sheds light on hunger strike at Eloy Detention Center

Installment 1 of “Quotes on the Quota” blog series

Last weekend, more than 200 detained immigrants at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona launched a hunger strike to protest the deaths of two fellow detained immigrants. José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagún’s death was reported by ICE and deemed a suicide by their autopsy report, while no information has been released about the other man who remains unnamed. Immigrants inside the facility allege that both deaths were caused by abusive treatment from guards including beatings, tazings, and improper use of solitary confinement. U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva issued a press release expressing his alarm and calling for a full, transparent investigation of the Corrections Corporation of America operated detention center. The hunger strikers reportedly faced retaliation including being locked up in their dorms, restricted time for personal hygiene, and deprivation of water.

These are not the first reports of deaths and abuse to emerge from the Arizona detention center. In 2013, two detained immigrants committed suicide while held at Eloy. There are also transgender immigrants at Eloy being locked in cells with all-male inmates, leading to multiple alleged rapes. In March, I interviewed Marichuy Leal about her 9 months in Eloy. Her testimony, included in the report Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit With an Immigrant Detention Quota, brings added insight into the conditions that are being exposed at Eloy by the hunger strike and by the strong LGBT rights movement that continues to organize to get transgender immigrants out of detention.

Marichuy was brought to the U.S. from Sinaloa, Mexico when she was 6 years old and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In her youth, she was sentenced to a year in Arizona State Prison in Yuma for drug charges. “I was going through a lot of problems with my family because they wouldn’t accept me for who I am, a trans woman,” Marichuy said. After serving a year in prison, she was deported to Mexico because of her immigration status.

After being deported, Marichuy was tortured in Nogales, Mexico because of her identity as a transgender woman. She was stabbed and has a scar on her head where she was attacked. She fled to Agua Prieta, Mexico but her attackers were following her so she presented herself at the Douglas, Arizona border to seek asylum in the U.S. Rather than encountering safety, she was immediately sent to the CCA-operated Eloy Detention Center in May 2013 where she was placed in a unit with 250 men. She was repeatedly called “faggot” by the men she was detained with, which the guards ignored. There was no privacy for showers, and Marichuy recounts that the guards and other detained men would watch the trans women while they showered. She and other transgender women would try to put up a curtain when they showered so the guards and other men wouldn’t be able to see them, but they were written up for doing so.

Marichuy says that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by the man who was her “cell mate.” She remembers that when she told her unit manager about the harassment, he said that she would just have to deal with it because they didn’t have any open cells. When she talked back to the unit manager, resisting this decision, they put her in segregation for two days as punishment. After she was released from segregation, she was returned to her cell with the same man who she had complained had harassed her. The night she returned to the cell, she says, the man raped and beat her in retaliation for her complaining to the guards. The guards took her to the hospital, then returned her to segregation for a week. Afterwards, Marichuy faced bullying from the guards and other detainees, who would tease her about her rape, saying “you know you liked it.” “The hardest part was…the bullying,” Marichuy said. “It was simply horrible. Every time they would tell me I would run to my room and cry.”

“They put me in segregation punishing me,” Marichuy said. She said that what ICE officials call “protective custody” is really solitary confinement. She describes segregation as a place “where they keep you 24/7 locked up in a cell. They only take you out for an hour to shower and when they pull you out to shower they handcuff you. When you walk out of the cell there’s a little window, you put your hand up there before they open the door and they handcuff you and they take you to the shower. There are some cages, you put your hand out, they take the handcuffs, you shower...again handcuffs, and then back to your cell.”

There was a time during detention when she attempted to commit suicide. “[There are] a lot of psychological problems you suffer like depression for all the punishment they do in there. When you’re being punished and discriminated in there you can’t do nothing about it,” Marichuy said. “There’s a certain point that you just give up on everything.” She said there were also other trans women who tried to kill themselves while she was there because they couldn’t deal with how they were treated at the detention center.

“My torture in Mexico didn’t finish. My torture in Mexico kept going in the detention center where supposedly I was going to be safe,” Marichuy said. “Supposedly ICE has a policy that no discrimination and no abuse is tolerated in the detention centers and that’s not true. Trans women and the LGBT community aren’t safe in detention centers. I wasn’t safe. We’re asking for help…but ICE and CCA…just punish us.”

Comparing the Arizona State Prison with the CCA-managed Eloy ICE detention center, Marichuy says that even though it’s still a jail, she “always wanted to be in [Arizona State] prison where I [had been] rather than suffering all that discrimination and abuse that’s going on inside the [Eloy] detention center.” Even though she has heard reports of abuses against trans women in the Arizona State Prison, she felt like there was more respect from the guards. She also had more privacy there, as she had her own cell and showers had curtains. In contrast, Marichuy could only describe the conditions at Eloy as “something terrible.”

Marichuy was released from Eloy in January 2015 after paying a $7500 bond and continues to fight her asylum case. She is now part of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP) as the coordinator of visitation for trans and LGBTQ immigrants in Eloy. The organization provides support letters, visitation, and counseling to trans and LGBTQ people detained at Eloy. They also participate in organizing marches and to put pressure on ICE to release trans women from detention centers.

“Releasing transgender [people] from detention centers is going to give us more power,” Marichuy said. “My goal is to close the detention centers…or at least change the policies they have. I don’t want other trans or LGBTQ people to have the same experience I had in the detention centers…That’s why I’m here fighting for justice.”

In addition to revealing some of the conditions that led to the recent hunger strike, Marichuy’s story personalizes the injustice of the immigrant detention system and the private prison companies prisons that profit from it. To read more about Marichuy and transgender immigrants in detention, see this article in The Advocate.

You can call on ICE today to meet the demands of the hunger strikers:

  1. Independent investigation into the two deaths in Eloy, both of which happened under suspicious circumstances, as well as an investigation into the ongoing problem of excessive use of force and deaths inside Eloy

  2. Improved conditions inside, including adequate medical and mental health care

  3. Access to legal resources and court hearings when requested

  4. An end to the exploitation of detainees’ work

  5. No more criminalization, detention, and deportation

Click here to demand that ICE negotiate with the hunger strikers, and to read more personal accounts from inside Eloy.