Rony, a former bus driver, escaped from his native Honduras when his life was threatened. The “mafia” had already killed his father and his brother for failing to pay the required extortion. He was next. Seeking asylum in the US, Rony was arrested and detained at a private prison owned and run by The GEO Group in the California high desert town of Adelanto. I met him this past year, my second visit to the facility. My first attempt was aborted when, along with a busload of people of faith and clergy, I tried to visit detainees there. When GEO learned of our plan, they put the facility on lock-down, not only refusing to let us in, but also ejecting family members waiting to see their loved ones. It was 110 degrees outside.
A recent report by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General flagged serious health and safety standards violations in Adelanto. There have been suicide attempts: nooses fashioned with bed sheets were hanging in 15 of the 20 examined cells. There are no recreational facilities or skills-building classes, and detainees are allowed a one hour visit per day — given the distance from their families, many get few to no visitors. Is this how we want our country to behave?
Our tradition teaches us to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our Statue of Liberty proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” So are we OK with a private prison incarcerating 2,000 human beings for the crime of trying to find refuge and safety, to escape from persecution, violence and extreme poverty?
To shed light on the conditions in Adelanto, Bend the Arc, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and I, organized an interfaith vigil there on the 8th night of Chanukah. At the darkest time of the year, we wanted to shine the candles’ brightness on the reality of our government’s policies towards immigrants and refugees. But we also wanted to offer the expansive light as a symbol of the possibility of hope to those locked behind bars.
Part of our effort was to rally support for Rony. His bond (a form of bail) was set at $10,000, a staggering amount for someone with no ties in the US. We had hoped to get him out by Chanukah, but had not raised sufficient funding. However, just this week, we reached our goal: Rony was bonded out this week, though he still faces a court decision about his asylum application.
A class action lawsuit has been filed against GEO on behalf of thousands of detainees, and we will continue to be vigilant on their behalf.
Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.