ThinkProgress

Strike at an immigration detention center strengthens the national prison strike movement

Supporters of immigration rights activist Maru Mora-Villalpando, and others from the Northwest Detention Center Resistance group. CREDIT: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Across the United States, prisoners are going on strike, and so are undocumented immigrants being held in detention centers.

As of Friday, there were 62 people on strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, activists told ThinkProgress. On Saturday, organizers held a rally near the detention center, demanding an end to what they called retaliation by staff against the people held there.

The demonstrations, which began on August 21 and will continue until September 9, have been held in prisons in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Indiana, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Some incarcerated people are refusing to work and others are refusing to eat. They have 10 national demands, including paying prisoners the prevailing wage in their state, better prison conditions, funding for more rehabilitation services, and rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which critics say made it harder for detained individuals to advocate for themselves.

Weeks before the strikes got underway last month, one of the organizers, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, released a statement of solidarity with people detained by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE).

In an interview with ShadowProof, one individual who helped organize the protests likened the detention centers to “cages.”

As far as the connection with ICE and why we’re in solidarity, the biggest reason is because we understand those cages. And not only that, but it’s all the same system. And this is something that JLS has been promoting from day one. The entire system itself—the judicial system, the injustice system—it is a big ball of corruption …

The organizer, speaking anonymously, alleged that “human rights violations” are committed at detention centers and that it’s “all on the same chain.”

Kara Lynum, immigration attorney and owner of Lynum Law Office described appalling conditions at the Dilley, Texas detention center when she spoke to ThinkProgress in June.

“It’s hard to get a doctor’s attention and once you do, you get subpar medical care. You get told to drink water or are refused medical care altogether,” she said. “The food is bad. There is definitely an issue with safety in drinking water. And they’re being held in custody, so there are still children in jail but they happen to be be with their parents or their mom at least.”

The Northwest Detention Center facility is operated by the company GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the U.S. According to NPR, the company is paid $32 million a year by ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service to operate these detention facilities, and the Trump administration wants to expand them. GEO Group has been hit with multiple lawsuits alleging that there is forced detainee labor at these facilities. The private prison operator CoreCivic threatened detainees with solitary confinement and deprivation of privacy, according to a class action lawsuit brought against the company in April.

On Monday, Maru Mora Villalpando, who as a leader of Northwest Detention Center Resistance, (NWDC Resistance) has participated in acts of civil disobedience to protest detention, said strike organizers have been in touch with immigration facilities across the U.S.

“This is the only one that they let us know in advance they were going on a strike for the prisoners strike,” she said. “The numbers started with about 200 people. We were very cautious with the number of people we were counting … The people who were hunger striking were moved immediately into solitary confinement.”

Mora Villalpando said there have been enough volunteers for NWDC Resistance to send people into the detention center and let them know that news outlets are covering the strike. She acknowledged that ICE has called the strikes “false rumors.”

“In the past, ICE says, ‘Well they haven’t reached a hunger strike until they refuse nine meals continuously’ and now they’re saying there is no hunger strike and now they say there are false rumors.  So they just keep hiding, and we have to report [those statements] back to those detained.”

NWDC Resistance said that 20 people were sent to segregation on August 30, after joining the strike out of frustration over an order that they stand up every time the warden enters a pod, and the warden’s heavy-handed response to those who don’t cooperate.

Some  folks detained at the center can’t get out of bed due to illness. One man who said he had back pain did not get up from his bed and was ordered to attend an administrative hearing as a result, activists said in a statement to ThinkProgress. An entire unit of people was punished by losing television access because some in their group did not comply with the rule, prompting most people in the unit to join the hunger strike. Subsequently, the strikers reported losing access to communication through their phones and said they were also threatened with deportation.

Mora Villalpando said it is uncertain how long hunger strikes will continue. “We know the national strike is going until September 9 and we don’t want people going on hunger strikes that long,” she said.

“We have been able to stop that from happening but under today’s regime, nothing is a guarantee. Some people did stop and in our experience when they stop they are likely to start again once they regroup especially if they have been sent to solitary and then back to general population.”

NWDC Resistance said in a statement to ThinkProgress that six men are on their ninth day of the hunger strike and most are in medical units. Six women also joined the hunger strike on Thursday night.

Mora Villalpando said organizers recounted an exchange with a man who reportedly said, “I’m going to go all the way because I’m going to get killed if I get deported. I’m sick anyway and they don’t want to give me medical care. So who cares anymore? I’d rather just die here.”

Mora Villalpando said it’s tragic that it takes such extreme action to call attention to detention center abuses.

“That’s horrible to think of someone thinking that way and sacrificing themselves because if maybe I don’t get out, they won’t do this to others. We have seen that again and again in hunger strikes, people who think I don’t know how long it will last but I will go as long as I can. It may not help in my case, but people need to know what is happening.” 

“We have seen that again and again in hunger strikes, people who think I don’t know how long it will last but I will go as long as I can. It may not help in my case, but people need to know what is happening

There have been a number of hunger strikes since 2014 and there were two hunger strikes earlier this year, according to NWDC Resistance.

Activists say the recent outcry over detention center conditions has bolstered a movement that has long spoken out against ill treatment. In the spring of last year, then head of Homeland Security John Kelly confirmed that the administration was considering family separation at the border. In April 2017, Kelly said children would only be separated from parents if a child’s life was in danger. A year later, in April of this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero tolerance policy which led to family separation.

In June, the policy sparked national outrage, leading to greater media coverage of conditions at detention centers generally, and a wider examination of US immigration policies. But Mora Villalpando said that although increased scrutiny has helped bring more media attention to detention center conditions, immigrant rights activists should also be credited with helping bring this issue before the public.

I think it’s because we have shown with so many facts why this agency needs to go.” she said. “I think we also have been successful at getting out the same voices of the people who have been detained — people who have said ‘This is a prison’.”

Mora Villalpando added: “People are now making the connection that ICE detention is nothing but an extension of a system that is already problematic in itself,” she said.

“When you’re talking about ICE as a toxic agency that tortures and people are saying ‘By the way, this is a prison,’ I think it makes it so much easier for everybody to pay attention to the prison strike in general — not only for people detained in ICE custody.”