As the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump ramps up deportations and continues to build its capacity for increased mass detentions and deportations, hundreds of incarcerated immigrants have rapidly joined a hunger strike to protest conditions they describe as abusive, exploitative, and filthy. The facility houses more than 1,500 civil detainees awaiting deportation or immigration hearings. Over 700 have joined the hunger strike so far.
The strike at Tacoma, Washington's Northwest Detention Center – now in its fifth day – has garnered national attention, highlighting the inhumane treatment of detainees held in private for-profit prisons contracted by ICE.
Detainees have complained about the poor quality of food, exorbitant commissary prices, lack of recreational facilities, restricted medical care access, and overall poor standards of hygiene at the detention camp. The immigrant detainees are also demanding an increase in pay – they are currently only given US$1 per day for performing menial volunteer work at the complex.
On Friday, community solidarity group NWDC Resistance announced that 70 women had joined the strike, complaining of terrible food and being forced to wear dirty, used underwear. The women, like many other locked-up immigrants, have also complained that their court proceedings face perpetual delays, leaving them no choice but to stew in the facility's horrendous conditions.
“We came here fleeing from our countries so that we could be heard and to ask for help,” one detainee said in a translation of a hand-written note included with the statement. “We are not criminals, but we have been forgotten here ... There are many here who are just awaiting their deportations and they are not being deported.”
“There is one officer who asked us why we are not eating, telling us there is no one outside supporting us so our efforts are in vain, but we will continue.”
However, organizers say that increasing media attention to the detainees' plight has boosted morale within the sprawling facility.
“That's why some pods report that TV channels have been blocked, so they won't be able to see the news,” NWDC Resistance spokeswoman Maru Mora Villalpando told teleSUR.
According to Villalpando, community support for the hunger strike has also been strong since detainees began refusing meals on Monday. Outside the facility, migrant justice advocates and community members, as well as the relatives of the detainees, have been camping out under tarps.
For-profit prison companies' stocks have surged since the election of Donald Trump, with GEO Group stock alone doubling from US$23 per share on Election Day to US$48 as of yesterday. On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that its first contract for a new detention facility would be awarded to GEO for the construction of a 1,000-bed, US$110 million detention camp in Conroe, Texas. The move coincided with an announcement that the company faces a class-action lawsuit from detainees in Aurora, Colorado, for violating federal anti-slavery laws by forcing prisoners to take on janitorial tasks and other jobs under threat of solitary confinement.
A majority of the immigrant detainees at the Tacoma prison are Mexican nationals. Organizers see the NWDC detainees' actions as part of a much broader struggle for freedom stretching across the continent – a struggle whose interconnectedness is made all the more clear by the common use of the hunger strike tactic.
Villalpando explained to teleSUR that detainees gained inspiration from a hunger strike by nurses in the Mexican state of Chiapas, whose two-week strike resulted in a victory after the government agreed to their demands for benefits, unpaid wages and proper medicine supplies.
“The hunger strike is not a tool that is used lightly,” Villalpando said. “When people use their own health to fight, to put their lives on the line, this just shows the extreme conditions they are dealing with and the urgency of their demands.”
She also noted that on Thursday, inmates at Riverside, California's Robert Presley Detention Center launched a strike to denounce unfair treatment and the abuse of solitary confinement policies. Many of the detainees at the Tacoma center were handed over to ICE after serving time in prisons for criminal sentences.
“Some of the best organizers in the detention center come from these prisons, they were incarcerated again after already paying their debt to society,” Villalpando explained. “They are natural leaders and assist the detainees who aren't used to these conditions or prepared for this experience.”
Nestora Salgado visiting the protest encampment outside the detention center. | Photo: NWDC Resistance
The NWDC Resistance encampment was recently visited by Nestora Salgado, a former Mexican political prisoner and naturalized U.S. citizen who spent over two years in jail for organizing autonomous, community-led armed self-defense forces in the state of Guerrero to combat drug cartels and the state forces behind them. In 2015, she went on a hunger strike for over a month.
“We wanted people on the inside to know that they had Nestora's support,” Villalpando said. “Her experience, her leadership is such an example to us all.”
Nonetheless, Villalpando said that morale within the pods and prison cells has been mixed.
On Thursday, the prison cafeteria, which normally serves a sparse meal of beans and rice, instead served a chicken meal for the first time in months – a vindictive gesture by authorities. Some striking detainees, unable to cope with the pressure of retaliation threats, have accepted meals while expressing shame for letting their fellow prisoners down.
Others, however, plan to continue the fight until their demands are met.
“Latinos, Chinese and Haitians all together, fighting,” Villalpando said, explaining the national origins of the detainees. “This is giving them strength.”
Hunger striker and musician Juan Manuel Barajas, of popular regional Mexican music group Raza Obrera, performs a song written while incarcerated at the Northwest Detention Center. Song begins at the 8:45 mark. "We are united and we won't stop - we need to be treated fairly, we are humans beings, not animals"