Immigrants in Washington Detention Center Join National Prison Strike

In a handwritten letter shared on the NWDC Resistance Facebook page, immigrants participating in the hunger strike said they were "demanding change and closure of these detention centers."

[Photo: Exterior shot of the Northwest Detention Center sign, on which someone posted a paper that reads,
"We are acting with solidarity for all those people who are being detained wrongfully and stand together to help support all those women who have been separated from their children, and to stop all the family separations happening today for a lot of us are also being separated and we have U.S. citizen children," immigrants participating in the hunger strike said in a handwritten letter shared on the NWDC Resistance Facebook page. Jason Redmond/Getty Images

One week into the national prison strike, a movement led by incarcerated people demanding an end to “prison slavery” and improvements that recognize their humanity, immigrants in detention have launched a strike of their own in solidarity.

Newsweek first reported on Thursday that an estimated 60 immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, are participating in a hunger strike. In a statement to Newsweek, ICE initially denied the hunger strike was taking place. On Tuesday afternoon, in an emailed statement to Rewire.News, the agency confirmed that six people detained at NWDC are currently participating in a hunger strike. 

“Rumors of a widespread hunger strike are false,” the agency said.

This morning, Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokesperson for the undocumented-led immigrant rights group, NWDC Resistance, told Rewire.News the number of immigrants participating in the strike is fluctuating. She said that she could confirm six hunger strikers at NWDC had been placed in solitary confinement by ICE and that the strike may spread to Oregon and California. 

“People are getting moved to different pods, people are being sent to solitary; it’s hard to track. We thought it officially launched on Tuesday, but we’ve now heard that some may have begun striking on Monday,” Mora Villalpando said in a phone call. “I spoke to a hunger striker last night and he told me that the medical unit is full, and so is the solitary unit and that he is one of six people in medical isolation. They could be full because people are being transferred there for retaliation or because people are getting sick from not eating or drinking because of the strike. Of course that is concerning because of the poor medical care they will receive. We want to make it clear that we are not the ones organizing this strike. That is the last thing we would do. This is being led by people in the facility. They are already tortured in there, we would never tell them not to eat or drink.”

In a handwritten letter shared on the NWDC Resistance Facebook page, immigrants participating in the hunger strike said they were “demanding change and closure of these detention centers.”

“We are acting with solidarity for all those people who are being detained wrongfully and stand together to help support all those women who have been separated from their children, and to stop all the family separations happening today for a lot of us are also being separated and we have U.S. citizen children,” the letter reads.

Women in detention have told Mora Villalpando that they too would like to participate in the hunger strike, but she said, ICE has told them that if they hunger strike, they will be moved to a different facility, away from their children. ICE has a history of transferring hunger strikers to other facilities.

The prison strike, launched by prisoners in South Carolina in response to the riot in the state’s Lee Correctional Institution in which seven prisoners lost their lives, began August 21, on the anniversary of the death of incarcerated activist George Jackson. “Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, was a leading voice and theorist in the 1970s prison movement—a time that saw hundreds of uprisings behind bars. On April 24, prisoners in South Carolina announced the strike, which is expected to last for 19 days and ends on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York,” Raven Rakia reported for the Nation.

Prisoners also released a list of ten demands—as circulated by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina that organizes for prisoners’ rights—making the connections between the criminalization of Black and brown communities very clear, including “racial-overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials” and “racist gang enhancement laws.” 

A primary demand of the prisoner strikers is the immediate end to “prison slavery.” “All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” the demand reads. “Forced labor,” as it is often referred to by immigrant rights advocates, is also a resounding issue for detained people.

In April 2018, Project South filed a lawsuit against the nation’s largest private prison company, CoreCivic, on behalf of Shoaib Ahmed and other immigrants detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The lawsuit alleges that the company “violates human trafficking laws and employs a deprivation scheme to force immigrants detained at Stewart to work for sub-minimum wages, and then threatens to punish them for refusing to work through solitary confinement or loss of access to necessities.” In 2014, the law firm Outten & Golden filed a similar lawsuit against the nation’s second largest private prison company, GEO Group, for engaging in similar practices at the Aurora Detention Center in Colorado, in violation the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Both U.S. citizens in prisons and immigrants in detention centers are detained in facilities run by private prison companies, and they are subjected to similar conditions. Much like the immigrant detention system, which has become synonymous with human rights abuses and in-custody deaths, advocates have called the nation’s private prison system a “national disgrace,” synonymous with “violence, abuse, and death.”

The companies largely behind the system—CoreCivic and GEO Group—have experienced a boom under the Trump administration. Under the Obama administration, however, there was movement for federal agencies to end their contracts with these companies.

In August 2016, the Justice Department announced it would end its use of for-profit prisons, and shares for Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group plummeted 35 percent and 39 percent, respectively, in the wake of the news. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision was largely informed by a report from the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General that revealed private prisons’ failure to save money and maintain the same level of safety and security as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, including higher rates of assaults. Also in August 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced it may follow the DOJ’s lead, though ultimately decided against it.

Well before Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed the DOJ in February 2017 to resume contracting with private prison companies, former prisons had already been recycled into immigrant detention centers.

“The huge strike is about solidarity, but a lot of the people in detention also came from prisons. After they served their sentence or got parole, they were immediately transferred to ICE custody. They were never really free,” Mora Villalpando told Rewire.News. “I’m not joking when I say that these people who have known both kinds of facilities actually say that prison is ‘better.’ By that I mean we all know prison is horrible, but in prison you have some sense of when you will get out or there is equation programs. Sometimes you get contact visits. That’s not how it works in detention centers, so these people truly understand the prison strike. Those who have not been in a prison still want to participate in the [hunger] strike because no matter what GEO says about NWDC, it is a prison.”

Currently, Mora Villalpando and other organizers with NWDC Resistance are in search of legal representation for the hunger strikers in solitary confinement, one of whom says ICE told him that if he does not eat, he will be force-fed. While ICE has previously denied it retaliates against detainees, there are documented cases of the agency moving to force-feed hunger strikers. As Rewire.News reported in December 2015, detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after hearing that a district judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers at Etowah.
“The idea that immigrants are being threatened with force-feeding in the United States is so wild to me, but it also isn’t. We have a history of this. This happened during slavery,” said Kevin Steel. Steel, an organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which is led by formerly incarcerated people, is referring to the ways enslaved people were force-fed if they attempted to stop eating.
“When I think of what they’re risking to be in solidarity with us, that touches me. As a Black man, as someone who was in prison, that is important to me. I stand with them, and I’m glad they’re standing with us in this fight.”

Steel, who was incarcerated in New York and still remembers seeing men put their feet in toilets because their cells were so hot during summer days and the facility had no fans or air conditioning, said he understands why prisoners are striking.

“It’s about basic human decency,” Steel told Rewire.News. “It’s about not having access to basic human stuff, like cool air and food that isn’t raw and disgusting.”

In fact, none of the demands of the prison strikers are “radical.” They are simple improvements to the conditions they experience, and a call to end slave labor.

“We are so worried about what immigrants are doing, so worried about what other countries are doing, but look at what’s happening in our own backyard,” Steel said. “I see this strike as an ongoing fight. Anything that’s worth anything takes time, and even if these demands aren’t met by September 9, we’re going to keep pushing, and we need to keep pushing together.”