Tuesday night’s Santa Ana City Council meeting became something akin to a public trial of the city jail, with the facility’s employees and immigrants rights activists taking opposing sides on the controversial edifice.

Depending on the speaker, the jail is either a cruel and inhumane lockup for undocumented immigrants – particularly transgender women – or a compassionate alternative to harsher jails in other parts of the country.

The debate occurred as council members were scheduled to consider looking for a consultant to conduct a jail “re-use study.” That decision would be a concrete step toward terminating the city’s almost decade-long contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for housing immigration detainees, the expressed goal of several council members.

Latino activists have long criticized the arrangement with ICE as morally unconscionable for a city that is nearly 80 percent Latino. And in February, the activists won an important victory when they convinced council members to reject a proposal to expand the contract and, for the first time, seriously consider terminating it altogether.

At the February meeting the activists focused specifically on the plight of transgender women who say they faced abuses while detained at the jail — such as strip searches by male correctional officers.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, dozens of jail employees and other supporters showed up to counter those allegations. They said the activists had painted a one-sided and inaccurate picture, and that the jail was in reality a far more humane facility than what had been described.

The employees who spoke included correctional officers, jail counselors and teachers. The jail offered classes ranging from general education to computers and also counseling services. They also said the jail’s atmosphere is much more calm than other facilities.

If the ICE contract were cancelled, detainees would be transferred to other jails farther away from the inmates’ families and with tougher environments, the employees said.

“You’ve been given a one sided picture or story of how we operate our jail,” said Jaime Manriquez, a correctional officer at the jail.

Activists and former detainees who are transgender balked at those arguments. One transgender woman said she complained about her liver illness but never received treatment. Others said officers had demeaned them and said specifically that an officer Molina had called the women “Mr.”

“I was locked up in Santa Ana jail for six months, and it was like hell,” said Jessica Latona, a transgender woman.

City leaders had been working on a pilot project that would “take into consideration the transgender detainees’ preferences as it relates to their custody and housing placement within the facility,” according to a meeting agenda staff report. However, the project would be dropped if the council chooses to continue down a path toward exiting the jail business.

Activists argued that ICE can’t be trusted to conduct humane detentions, and that the city must exercise a 90-day contract cancellation clause.

But council members cancelled the hearing early and before public comments could conclude, having punted the issue because they couldn’t achieve a quorum. Council members Angelica Amezcua, Michele Martinez and Miguel Pulido had left the meeting early. And Councilman David Benavides said he was sick and also had to leave.

With the early adjournment, city leaders plan to continue the hearing at another council meeting in the near future.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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