In a letter released Tuesday, Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson disputed claims by activists supporting a hunger strike by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees held in the Yuba County Jail.

Of the ICE detainees held in Yuba County, 46 started the strike Sunday to protest jail conditions and policies. Supporters were urging people to contact the sheriff’s office to express support for those engaged in the strike.

“For those of you that have emailed or telephoned my office, please know that the conditions in the Yuba County Jail are not as some would have you believe,” Anderson wrote in the letter. “While we are not without issues, we are taking steps to better our facility.”

The Yuba County Sheriff’s Office has had a contract with ICE since the 1990s, which has generated about $5 million in revenue annually in recent years, according to Appeal-Democrat archives. If the jail continues with its average of 180 ICE detainees each day, the contract could generate around $6.5 million per year. The department has said in past interviews with the Appeal-Democrat that the revenue from the contract is critical to department operations.

The contract only requires the jail be a housing facility and the department maintains that it does not engage in undocumented enforcement or transportation. Detainees housed at the jail are typically awaiting immigration proceedings in San Francisco.

Activists communicating with detainees say the jail has unsanitary conditions; insufficient programming; lack of access to fresh air and exercise; poor medical, mental health and dental treatment; limited visitation; and 19-hour lockdowns. 

Anderson pushed back on those allegations: 

n He said jail medical staff is on duty for 24 hours a day and detainees’ medical requests are tracked, with care provided on-site when possible and referred off-site when necessary. 

n Weekly programs are available to inmates and ICE detainees and include GEDs, narcotics anonymous, a treatment readiness program, alcohol and chemical treatment, parenting, anger management and sexual abuse counseling. 

n Each housing pod offers access to a free, non-recorded phone intended for communication with attorneys and legal partners, and are allowed weekly visitation.

n With rare exception, detainees are afforded six hours out of their cells for programs each day, and are provided eight hours of exercise time weekly. A few detainees are restricted to less hours due to disciplinary reasons or their classification based on criminal history.

Anderson also said the Yuba County Jail undergoes inspections by the Board of State and Community Corrections and ICE, noting that recent inspections identified the jail as being in compliance with National Detention Standards. Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues have been addressed, he wrote, and timelines for implementation have been identified. 

In his letter, Anderson also provided a breakdown of the Yuba County detainees and crimes they are accused of, stating many of the detainees who, if released, would threaten public safety. Of the 46 ICE detainees who are striking, 22 are identified as gang members – two of them being from MS-13, Anderson said.

Anderson included a table detailing how many of the detainees were charged or convicted of a long list of crimes – it indicated there are 12 with murder charges, 14 with aggravated assault, 12 with drug trafficking, 12 with DUIs, and 14 with robbery. In all, it broke out how many detainees were associated with 42 different crimes, totaling 177 charges.

“Despite the convictions, arrests or criminal pasts of the detainees, we provide everyone with the best level of care possible,” Anderson wrote. “The hard-working and committed staff at the Yuba County Jail provides a quality service to those in their custody and to suggest otherwise is simply demeaning and utterly misleading.”

Autumn Gonzalez, a Yuba City native who now lives in Sacramento and is part of the NorCal Resist activist group speaking on behalf of detainees, took issue with the sheriff’s letter including criminal histories. 

“It doesn’t have anything to do with what a person’s prior criminal history is,” Gonzalez said Tuesday. 

She said another widespread issue within ICE is its classification of gang members, saying information like what country or neighborhood a person is from and a tattoo can earn someone such a classification and can cause grounds for deportation. She said Anderson’s specific mention of MS-13 is using a buzzword to play into the U.S. president’s rhetoric against immigrants. 

Some detainees may end the hunger strike by Wednesday, while others have committed to continuing, Gonzalez said. But with the continuation of the strike comes the fear of retaliation, she said. 

“They’ve been hearing from people who work at the jail, ‘things are going to get hard for you,’” she said, “or they’re at least warning them that retaliation is something that’s coming down the road.”

In his letter, Anderson said that he has “a tremendous respect for human rights, quality of life and equality” and wouldn’t demean or oppress others in their pursuit of liberty.

“I am adamantly supportive of the rights of others to pursue their dreams in this country that I hold so dear, and I support any and all means of legal immigration,” Anderson wrote.

ICE did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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