By Jessica Hardin
In the spirit of the afternoon, Akron-Canton area residents John Beaty, Austin Miller, Dustin White, James Talbert and JR Rozco prepared for their arrest with a song.
After three hours of protest chants, the five clergy members stood at the entrance of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center on Youngstown-Hubbard Road on Monday with their arms around each other and sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee” – the hymn associated with the sinking of the Titanic.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Youngstown police arrested the five on a charge of criminal trespassing after they refused to leave until permitted to provide religious support to undocumented detainees at NEOCC. After four police SUVs arrived, the five clergy members were handcuffed, led to a police van and taken to Mahoning County jail until arrangements could be made for their release.
Radial Church, America’s Voice Ohio and the Interreligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia organized the interfaith vigil that turned into a standoff among church leaders, police and the assistant warden at NEOCC.
The private prison owned by CoreCivic holds undocumented immigrants who were detained when ICE raided Corso’s and Fresh Mark agricultural facilities in June.
Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, a co-coordinator at the InterReligious Task Force, energetically kicked off the vigil.
She said, “Our immigrant family members have been denied spiritual support. They have requested access to spiritual support that they have not received. We have clergy members who are willing to risk arrest to bring them that support.”
“Others who were not a part of those ICE raids have a chaplain and are able to receive spiritual support,” added James Talbert, pastor at Citizens Akron.
Dustin White, pastor at Radial Church in Canton, said limited access to religious support is only one aspect of the discrimination that undocumented detainees experience at NEOCC.
“We have reports that [undocumented detainees] are only allowed outside of their cells for one hour per week,” Pastor White said.
Church leaders note that advocating for detainees is particularly challenging, because NEOCC is a private prison.
“Our organization has visited detention centers all over the country,” Stonebraker-Martinez said. “Often, when they are public institutions, you can get very, very close to the detention center, like in Huntsville, Ala.
“You can see physically in the window those who are detained, but when we’re standing at a for-profit detention center, there’s often this idea that property and profits are more valuable than human rights and we’re put very far away.”
As Stonebraker-Martinez said this, NEOCC employees set up a line of cones blocking the entrance. The five church leaders prepared to risk arrest and stood at the line for more than three hours, attempting to negotiate with the prison’s assistant warden, Pete Bludworth.
“I am caught off guard. No one has brought this issue to me,” Bludworth said to the group.
Despite the sentiments of goodwill exchanged among Bludworth, Youngstown Detective Sgt. Brent Gaitanis and the protesters, they could not reach a resolution to satisfy everyone.
Although the protesters’ demands were not met Monday, Lynn Tramonte, who helped organize the vigil, said she hopes it will shed light on the fact that family separation also is a local issue.
“There’s a lot of concern over the separation of families at the border, but what people don’t seem to know is that there are separations happening everyday inside homes in Ohio,” she said.