On Saturday, March 7, about 85 protestors gathered in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] Center in Okmulgee, OK to protest the inhumane treatment of detainees there.
The protestors sang Bob Dylan peace anthems and carried signs calling for the abolishment of ICE and stating that “families belong together.”
Located in a non-descript building near the city center, the ICE facility in Okmulgee is one of over two dozen similar facilities that have been built since Donald J. Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016.
It was established after an agreement was signed between the Okmulgee County Criminal Justice Authority [OCCJA] and ICE in January 2018 as a way to offset $260,000 in budget cuts mandated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections [DOC] in March 2017, when it abruptly canceled 10 contracts it held with county jails to house overflow prisoners.
Nearly three years earlier, the Okmulgee jail had been the scene of a riot that caused $10,000 in damage and left one prisoner hospitalized. The cause was overcrowding and poor living conditions, inadequate diet, dismal sanitation, and a lack of access to proper medical care and showers.
According to Okmulgee County District Attorney Rob Barris, the overcrowding issue was so horrific that “[s]everal times, the jail inspector had indicated if the issue was not corrected, the county would face fines and other sanctions which could cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars and possibly result in the closure of the jail or the release of numerous inmates from custody.”
To address the problems, Okmulgee residents voted to build a $7 million jail annex, which was completed in 2016.
However, the annex was converted into an ICE facility as a way to offset the DOCs budget cuts.
Asked by The Tulsa World in July 2017 what would happen without the ICE contract that replaced the DOC agreement and funding, OCCJA director Sam McCoy stated: “We’d have a fancy new vacant building and the current facility we built 16 years ago would continue to be massively overcrowded, and we’d be under threat of administrative sanctions.”
Overcrowding, however, appears to remain a major problem at the jail. On Feb. 17, a new riot broke out, and inmates have reported being forced to sleep on a concrete floor because a lack of mattresses and being left with a broken jaw for days without medical attention.
Okmulgee, about 30 miles outside Tulsa, is an impoverished town that has a high crime rate and is at the center of the state’s opioid epidemic.
Rosie Lynch, a local activist who spoke at the rally on Saturday, is among those who believe the ICE facility is a stain on the town and reflects the mis-prioritization of government funding.
The ICE center pays well, she said on Saturday, but doesn’t provide the kind of jobs the area needs. Rather, in her view, the center represents a “violation of human rights” and is a part of a system that is “set up to hurt, colonize and oppress people of color and that are poor.”
Other speakers at the rally echoed Lynch’s views. The fiancée of a city jail detainee, charged with a minor traffic violation and soon-to-be transferred to the ICE facility, spoke about how families were being torn apart by the current system. She also said based on first hand knowledge that conditions in the county jail remained “disgusting” – a rebuke to the OCCJA’s claims regarding the purpose of the ICE agreement.
Cynthia Garcia, a Mexican immigrant from Oklahoma City representing the United We Dream coalition, asked the audience to imagine what it was like for inmates who had committed no crime and were forced to endure living inside a facility where the lights were on for 24 hours and where they did not know if it was night or day.
Garcia stated that instead of being a beacon light in the Trump era, America has been building more and more “dark places like this.”
Trump, she said, further had “put a target on her [own] chest,” and “forced her to live the last 3½ scared for my family and my life.”
Garcia continued that we are living now in a “shameful period of history” and it is up to those of us with decency and courage to speak out and try and work to right the wrong.
Saturday’s protest was organized by the Tulsa-based New Sanctuary Network, which issued a set of demands starting with the closure of the ICE detention facility in Okmulgee because of the “lack of transparency and accountability as to how the annex was built.”
The second demand was for an end to local and statewide collaboration with ICE, which takes resources and focus away from local priorities and implicates them in an unjust system.
The third demand was an opposition to HB 3195, which would require all law enforcement to comply with detainers.
The fourth demand is for the establishment of an oversight committee to be set up to monitor overcrowding and civil/human rights abuses in the jail.
It was noted by some attendees at the protest that the jail conditions in Okmulgee remain abominable. Allegedly there is only one shower per 60 inmates and the facility is disgusting despite some upgrades to its exterior.
The final demand is for the OCCJA to work with pillars of the local community to gain transparency on both how ICE and OCCJA negotiated their contracts for the Okmulgee detention facility and on the negotiation of future contracts.
John David Bragg Sutton of the New Sanctuary movement notes that ICE and OCCJA have been extremely opaque in defining their relationship to the public, which could lead to the perception that what they are doing would not be widely supported if it were known.
Reached for comment, state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, a Republican whose district includes Okmulgee, said he was unaware of the protests last Saturday so could not comment on the issues that they raised. He also said he would review the HB 3195. Okmulgee’s mayor, Steven Baldridge, also had no comment as he said that he had nothing to do with the OCCJA agreement. In addition, OCCJA authorities were reluctant to speak.