Immigrant detainees on hunger strike allege threats by guards

Strikers in two centers owned by the same company allege mistreatment, call for an end to deportations

Demonstrators opposing the deportation of undocumented immigrants hold up signs while chanting in English and Spanish outside of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., on March 11, 2014.
Thomas Soerenes/AP

Hunger-strikers protesting poor treatment and deportation at an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash., have accused a private security firm that runs the facility of threatening retaliation against participants, days after a second strike broke out at another detention facility in Conroe, Texas, run by the same company.

“Guards threatened at least two detainees with deportation for their participation in the strike,” Maru Mora Villalpando, CEO of Latino Advocacy, told Al Jazeera. “We have also heard from people who said the guards told them they would be force-fed if the hunger strike continued.”

That got the attention of the American Civil Rights Union, Villalpando said, adding that the organization has sent lawyers to meet with hunger strikers at Northwest Detention Center. At last count, there were 11 people on strike there, Villalpando said, before saying that it was nearly impossible to get information from the inside.

Detainees held at Northwest Detention Center launched their hunger strike on March 7, when they began skipping scheduled meals, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The detainees are demanding better treatment inside the center, and more broadly for President Barack Obama to sign an executive order ending deportations, according Villalpando.

“My son has been on hunger strike for six days now,” one relative of a detainee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Villalpando. Other relatives told Latino Advocacy that family members detained in the facility had ended their hunger strike because of threats from guards — who had reportedly told them they would be deported or have their asylum cases closed if they continued.

GEO Group, Inc., the for-profit prison corporation that owns the two detention centers along with 98 other correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities in the U.S. and abroad, moved several detainees into “medical isolation” as a result of their participation in the hunger strike, Villalpando said.

Any detainees at Northwest Detention Center who were identified as going without food for 72 hours were placed under medical observation away from the general population for monitoring, ICE said.

The government agency, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, contends that it has taken no punitive actions against individuals participating in the hunger strike.

“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference and has acted in good faith to address concerns,” Andrew Munoz, public affairs officer for ICE, told Al Jazeera.

On Thursday, ICE announced that medical officials had declared four detainees at the facility to be on hunger strike. Two of those detainees remain under medical observation. The other two have since resumed eating and were returned to the general population, the agency said. 

Miguel Farias was one of the detainees transferred to medical isolation after he began rejecting meals. However, Farias ended his hunger strike on Monday because he “wanted to see other people.”

“The hunger strike and lack of food didn’t break his spirit, but the isolation was too much,” Villalpando said, adding that two others were still in medical isolation as far as she knows — Jesus Gaspar and Ramon Mendoza.

“It’s so hard to get information out, there are probably more people on strike in Tacoma than we know of — those striking on and off, or those who just started,” she said. “It’s impossible to know.”

Complicating the availability of information, guards have reportedly prevented more than two or three detainees from congregating in the facility at any given time, according to Villalpando.

GEO Group has denied all allegations of guard retaliation against hunger strikers, saying that its facilities conform to ICE’s operating standards.

"GEO’s immigration facilities provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” Pablo Paez, Vice President of Corporate Relations at the company, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s important to emphasize that as a matter of long-standing policy, our company does not take a position on or advocate for any specific immigration policy,” he added.

However, Jose Morena, an organizer of the Washington hunger strike who was released on bond from Northwest Detention Center last Thursday, contends that guards have retaliated.

He said he stopped eating for one week before guards at the facility threatened to transfer him to another facility if he didn’t start eating, saying that none of his family or supporters would know where he was, Moreno told Al Jazeera.

After the threat, and after guards started taking down the names of those on hunger strike, Moreno decided to end his strike. He’s in good health now, but said it was an “unpleasant experience.” He added that the guards, “especially the guards of GEO,” treated him very badly.

“One day, I got a severe nose bleed and signed up for medical service,” Moreno said. He waited more than 24 hours to be called to the medical unit, but was never summoned. “When I went to sleep, I almost drowned in my own blood,” he said.

On Monday, immigrants detained in another GEO-owned center, the Joe Corley Detention facility in Conroe, Texas, launched their own hunger strike. They said the action was inspired by the detainees in Washington and echoed similar complaints.

An eight-page handwritten letter from the Texas hunger strikers was posted on the website “Not One More Deportation.”

“[We] demand that the Federal Executive [President Obama] use his presidential authority and order a total stop to the unjust deportations that are separating families, destroying homes, and bringing uncertainty, insecurity, and unhappy futures to our children, our loved ones,” the letter states.

The detainees also called for transparency and accurate figures reflecting cases where detainees were forced to sign their own deportation orders “under pressure and lies,” and those whose cases have been open for more than one year without resolution.

Under President Obama's watch, nearly two million people have been deported. Last week, his administration ordered a full review of the country’s deportation policies.

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