ICE Detainees in Alabama Protest, Hunger Strike and Threaten Suicide Amidst COVID Outbreak

ICE Detainees in Alabama Protest, Hunger Strike and Threaten Suicide Amidst COVID Outbreak

Etowah County Detention Center, Gadsden, Alabama
March 20, 2020

Detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama staged a protest Friday after three new detainees were brought into the facility with flu symptoms. Other detainees livestreamed the protest on Facebook, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The video shows two detainees standing on the upper tier of their dorm with bed sheets tied around their necks, evidently threatening to kill themselves if the facility fails to institute effective quarantine measures to protect detainees against the spread of COVID-10. Many other detainees stand at attention around and below the two with arms clasped in front, seemingly participating in the protest.

“They got three positive tested for the coronavirus in here with us, they brought them in here today…while we were sleeping. They’re not trying to let them outta here. We telling them you gotta take them outta here or we gonna turn up in here, they’re threatening to shoot us with tasers, and pellet guns, and tear gas and all that,” the detainees said in the video.

A detainee livestreamed a video of a protest inside the Etowah County Jail. The detainee has since been placed on lockdown in retaliation for his journalism. (Photo Source: Screenshot by The Daily Mail of video obtained by The Washington Post).

“We’re not having no more people come in here with that symptom,” another says. “We’re not trying to put no more lives at risk.”

According to three detainees who were interviewed by The Washington Post, they were brought into the facility the night before with an individual who was visibly ill and wearing a mask. The protest ended when the sick detainees were moved to a different unit. It was not specified whether they were quarantined or whether the facility will institute effective quarantine measures in the future.

After the video of the protest was released, the Sheriff’s Department placed the facility on lockdown–only allowing detainees to leave their cells ten at a time for one hour a day, according to an interview with a member of the group Shut Down Etowah, who is in touch with detainees there. In response to the lockdown, the detainees in the same  went on hunger strike on Monday, March 23 until the Sheriff’s department agreed to lift the lockdown on Thursday.

The supporter from Shut Down Etowah also said that 35 detainees in another unit also got together to demand COVID-19 testing and reported that “ICE agents disrespected them and ridiculed their demands.”


Tefsa Miller, one of the detainees in the video who is standing on the ledge threatening suicide, spoke with Perilous Chronicle about his experience at the facility and his decision to protest.

Richard Marvin Thompson, an ICE detainee who spoke with Connecticut Public Radio, emphasized the danger of living in a detention center amidst an epidemic. Discussing social distancing, Thompson said, “It’s hard … how can you? How? The unit itself is like a big quarantine area. You know, you get up every day, I’m rubbing elbows with a detainee. Every day I’ll have somebody in my cell. You know what I’m saying? It’s difficult to practice social distance in here.”

The Etowah County Detention Center houses male immigration detainees under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in addition to non-immigrant detainees.

According to Shut Down Etowah, which advocates for the closure of the facility, “Organizations like Detention Watch Network and the Women’s Refugee Commission have exposed the abuses and rampant human rights violations that have occurred inside Etowah, labeling it ‘among the worst’ immigration detention centers in the country.”

Shut Down Etowah has launched a call-in campaign in an attempt to pressure Sheriff Jonathon Horton to take action to protect Etowah detainees from the spread of COVID-19.




ICE detainees threaten suicide, stage protests over coronavirus fears”, The Washington Post, March 25, 2020.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’: Thousands of inmates released as jails and prisons face coronavirus threat“, The Washington Post, March 25, 2020.

Representative, Shut Down Etowah, Personal Interview, March 28, 2020.

Connecticut Immigrant Describes ICE Detention Amid COVID-19 Fears“, Connecticut Public Radio, April 1, 2020.


Article Published: 3/28/2020; Updated 4/6/2020

Header Photo Source: Screenshot by The Daily Mail of video obtained by The Washington Post.