TACOMA, Wash. — Activists say more than 100 immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats started a hunger strike Monday to protest conditions at the facility, according to an immigrant rights group.
The three-day strike, which started at noon, is intended to get concessions in terms of food, care and legal access, according to a letter from detainees released by the NWDC Resistance.
On Tuesday, NWDC, said 400 were on a hunger strike, but no numbers have been confirmed.
The immigrant rights group held a protest outside the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement site, during which the letter was read aloud. About 30 people attended.
ICE says the hunger strike should really be called a "meal refusal" because inmates who have chosen not to eat cafeteria meals still have access to buy commissary items, and as long as a detainee is eating commissary items, they are not considered to be on a hunger strike.
The detention center holds more than 1,500 immigrants whose deportation proceedings are ongoing. Geo Group, a private for-profit prison corporation, runs the facility.
“It is very likely that ICE and Geo will try to retaliate by switching them (the striking detainees) to other pods or sending them to solitary,” NWDC Resistance leader Maru Mora Villalpando told the crowd Monday.
ICE regional spokeswoman Rose Richeson said the office will not retaliate against participants in the “purported ‘hunger strike.’”
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference and does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” Richeson said.
The protest will not be considered a hunger strike until 72 hours have passed, she said; until then, all meals will be offered to everyone at the detention center.
After 72 hours, all detainees continuing a hunger strike could be taken into isolation in the medical department and offered medical treatment. ICE can petition the courts to begin involuntary treatment if detainees decline it.
The following statement from ICE was provided on Tuesday:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. Individuals at all ICE facilities have access to meals served three times daily at the cafeteria, and the Northwest Detention Facility also provides snacks and/or food available for purchase from a commissary. The current so-called hunger strike is more correctly termed a "meal refusal" involving a number of detainees who have chosen not to eat meals provided by the cafeteria. All detains continue to have access to purchase items from the commissary and as long as a detainee is eating commissary items they are not considered to be on a hunger strike. Only after an individual is observed not to have eaten at all for 72 hours will they be considered on hunger strike and at that pointbecome subject to the agency's protocols for handling hunger strikes – <a href="http://www.ice.gov/doclib/dro/detention-standards/doc/hunger_strikes.doc" target="_BLANK">see link</a>. Individuals on a hunger strike will continue to be offered three meals daily and provided an adequate supply of drinking water or other beverages. They will also be counseled about the related medical risks.
The list of demands in the letter were:
▪ Change the food menu.
▪ Lower commissary prices.
▪ Improve hygiene.
▪ Increase recreation time.
▪ Have schoolwork and other programs available to keep detainees occupied.
▪ Improve medical attention.
▪ Increase wages for working detainees.
▪ Help speed up the legal process for detainees.
Detainees held a similar strike in 2014 and got some changes they wanted, Mora said.
“They’re the experts — they know what they’re dealing with,” Mora said of the detainees. “We’re on the outside. We don’t have the same experience.”
The NWDC Resistance will send in lawyers to check on the health of the detainees during the strike, she said.