Detainees Reportedly Thrown Into Solitary Confinement as Hunger Strike Continues

Rose Arrieta

Detainees have been refusing food for weeks in an attempt to protest conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. (Seattle Globalist / Flickr / Creative Commons)

As a rolling hunger strike by detainees at the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter in Taco­ma, Wash., enters its fourth week, pro­test­ers claim that admin­is­tra­tors have tak­en retal­ia­to­ry mea­sures in response to the efforts sur­round­ing the strike. 

Has­sall Moses, a U.S. army vet­er­an and detained immi­grant, says that on March 26, he was pulled from the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion and put in seg­re­ga­tion after call­ing for a work stop­page among the detainees.

I print­ed out a let­ter ask­ing my fel­low detainees to come togeth­er as one peo­ple, unit­ed,” said Moses in a record­ed state­ment to a vis­it­ing attor­ney that has been made avail­able to the media. After­ward, he says, he was placed in soli­tary confinement.

But Moses was just the first per­son tar­get­ed. One day lat­er, more than 20 men were also alleged­ly placed in iso­la­tion. Sev­er­al of them told attor­neys that offi­cials had asked the detainees if any­one want­ed to speak to high­er-ups about con­di­tions there. Accord­ing to a state­ment from attor­neys at the cen­ter, the group vol­un­teered, believ­ing they were head­ed into nego­ti­a­tions over the hunger strike. Instead, the men say they were hand­cuffed, sur­round­ed by offi­cers in riot gear and tak­en into soli­tary confinement. 

Mean­while, fam­i­ly mem­bers who went to vis­it the cen­ter this week­end report­ed that their rel­a­tives were brought to the vis­it­ing area in shack­les and sur­round­ed by four guards each. 

Locat­ed about 40 miles south of Seat­tle, the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter is run by GEO Group, one of the largest pri­vate providers of cor­rec­tion­al ser­vices in the coun­try. Though it con­tracts with a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions, the U.S. Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) is its most gen­er­ous cus­tomer — the depart­men­t’s busi­ness alone brings in upwards of $200 mil­lion a year for the com­pa­ny.

Mean­while, pro­test­ers say, con­di­tions inside the facil­i­ty in Taco­ma are mis­er­able. The hunger strik­ers are call­ing for improved food qual­i­ty, an end to exces­sive com­mis­sary prices, decreased phone rates and an end to depor­ta­tion in general.

They’re also ask­ing for increased pay for their work. Cur­rent­ly, detainees say that they pro­vide the pri­ma­ry source of labor for the facil­i­ty, includ­ing work­ing in the kitchen or laun­dry rooms and per­form­ing jan­i­to­r­i­al ser­vices — and that they do so for $1.00 a day. (Inmates in state or fed­er­al cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties are paid 25 cents an hour for work they do in prisons.)

Moses, who was born in Microne­sia and has been detained for 21 months, hoped to high­light this injus­tice with the writ­ten call for work stop­page that he says land­ed him in soli­tary con­fine­ment. Basi­cal­ly this facil­i­ty is run by the detainees,” he says. If every­body stopped work­ing, we could nego­ti­ate the pay raise, because right now every­body is work­ing for a dollar.”

You could call it the one dol­lar a day vol­un­teer pro­gram.’ … No mat­ter how many hours they work, they get one dol­lar,” adds Maru Mora Vil­lal­pan­do, an immi­grant rights activist with the Lati­no Advo­ca­cy group in the Seat­tle area, in an inter­view with In These Times. 

GEO is mak­ing mon­ey out of their mis­ery, and sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies, and sav­ing mon­ey out of their vol­un­teer’ labor — [and it] is the per­fect storm to make this such a huge prof­it machine,” she con­tin­ues. GEO Group did not respond to mul­ti­ple requests for comment.

Vil­lal­pan­do points out the dis­con­nect between strict immi­gra­tion laws — fre­quent­ly tout­ed by politi­cians as the way to pro­tect” Amer­i­can jobs — and the pal­try wages of detainees. As she recent­ly told Al Jazeera, It’s just iron­ic that the gov­ern­ment is detain­ing peo­ple for work­ing with­out a social secu­ri­ty num­ber; mean­while, they allow this com­pa­ny to exploit their labor.”

The report­ed­ly low pay has also caught the atten­tion of labor lead­ers in the area. Jeff John­son, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton State Labor Coun­cil, and Tef­ere Gebre, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO, have joined the allies who gath­er on a dai­ly basis out­side the Taco­ma deten­tion cen­ter to deplore the con­di­tions inside. They also intend to gath­er their resources on behalf of the detainees.

We’re look­ing to fig­ure out ways to help the fam­i­lies and what we can do finan­cial­ly and legal­ly,” John­son tells In These Times. This is out­ra­geous that they are forced to work and get only dol­lar a day.”

The irony is that [at] the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter … with­in eye­sight are these mil­lion-dol­lar con­dos, while hun­dreds of detainees live in con­di­tions that none of us would tol­er­ate if the pub­lic could actu­al­ly see what these folks are going through,” he continues.

A few weeks into the strike, local law­mak­ers vis­it­ed North­west to meet with some of the pro­test­ers. After­ward, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, whose dis­trict includes the facil­i­ty, spoke with DHS Sec­re­tary Jeh John­son. In a lat­er state­ment, Smith said that he expressed [his] con­cerns [to Jeh John­son] about the ris­ing num­ber of immi­grants being deported.”

He also said that he sent let­ters to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and John­son ask­ing for pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion at all lev­els of immi­gra­tion enforce­ment pro­ceed­ings so that fac­tors such as ties to the com­mu­ni­ty are not ignored.” In addi­tion, he said he urged increased depor­ta­tion relief for imme­di­ate rel­a­tives of U.S. cit­i­zens, Legal Per­ma­nent Res­i­dents, and DREAM­ers that con­tin­ue to be deport­ed while we wait for com­pre­hen­sive immi­gra­tion to come to the floor for a vote.”

Increased lev­els of depor­ta­tion have had a dev­as­tat­ing impact on our com­mu­ni­ty, and I hope action is tak­en to pro­vide greater pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion,” he concluded.

News of the protest at North­west has spread to immi­grants at oth­er facil­i­ties. At the Joe Cor­ley Deten­tion Facil­i­ty in Con­roe, Texas — also run by GEO Group—more than 100 detainees launched a hunger strike on March 16. And the retal­i­a­tion for those strik­ers has also alleged­ly been harsh. Accord­ing to Cristi­na Park­er, an orga­niz­er with Austin-based Grass­roots Lead­er­ship, some detainees at Cor­ley have been shack­led and isolated.

Diyadera Tre­viño of the Texas Undoc­u­ment­ed Youth Alliance tells Free Speech Radio News that oth­er detainees from the Texas facil­i­ty were actu­al­ly deport­ed to Mex­i­co and Hon­duras as a con­se­quence of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the action.

ICE and GEO have them­selves iden­ti­fied peo­ple as lead­ers,” she says. We’ve received calls from peo­ple they have already deport­ed … who have called us and said I was amongst the men par­tic­i­pat­ing in the hunger strike and I was intim­i­dat­ed and forced to sign my depor­ta­tion removal [order].’”

In order to ensure the detainees’ right to go on hunger strike was being respect­ed, ACLU attor­neys tried to enter Cor­ley last week; how­ev­er, accord­ing to activists, they were denied access to the facil­i­ty.

ICE spokesper­son Andrew Munoz said in a state­ment: ICE ful­ly respects the rights of all peo­ple to express their opin­ion with­out interference.”

The strikes were staged in response to con­di­tions at the indi­vid­ual facil­i­ties, but ral­lies to sup­port the detainees in both cen­ters will be part of the #2Million2Many Nation­al Day of Action on April 5. Orga­nized by the Nation­al Day Labor Orga­niz­ing Net­work (NDLON) to mark two mil­lion depor­ta­tions under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, activists have planned hunger strikes, march­es and sit-ins in more than 40 cities across the country.

In San Fran­cis­co, for instance, mem­bers of the grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion Mujeres Unidas y Acti­vas will par­take in a 24-hour fast begin­ning April 3, with a larg­er mass action on April 4. In Chica­go, par­tic­i­pants will march to protest at the Deten­tion Cen­ter in Broad­view, Ill.; Los Ange­les groups will gath­er out­side City Hall. 

Though the pro­test­ers’ demands for the admin­is­tra­tion vary some­what from city to city, they include extend­ing Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA) to all immi­grants; issu­ing an exec­u­tive order to halt all depor­ta­tions; end­ing Secure Com­mu­ni­ties” and oth­er police/​ICE col­lab­o­ra­tion pro­grams; end­ing work­place enforce­ment pro­grams such as E‑Verify” and I‑9 audits; sup­port­ing the Bring Them Home” Cam­paign; and grant­i­ng human­i­tar­i­an parole to deport­ed par­ents who have been sep­a­rat­ed from their children.

To date, the admin­is­tra­tion’s announced immi­gra­tion ini­tia­tives’ have fall­en far short, and failed to ease the trag­ic sep­a­ra­tion of fam­i­lies that dev­as­tate com­mu­ni­ties on a dai­ly basis. Enough is enough. As orga­ni­za­tions that see the dev­as­ta­tion of depor­ta­tions in our com­mu­ni­ty, we can­not be silent, nor par­tic­i­pate in pro­grams that mere­ly make cos­met­ic changes,” read a state­ment released by the coali­tion group SF Bay for Immi­grant Jus­tice about the campaign.

For the last five years, activists point out, a fed­er­al pol­i­cy has required ICE to keep a min­i­mum num­ber of detainees in cus­tody. The fact is that Oba­ma is not giv­ing us any relief,” says Vil­lal­pan­do. Con­gress set up a quo­ta for ICE to have 34,000 [immi­grants] any giv­en day in deten­tion centers.”

Though the 2015 fed­er­al bud­get does not include this spe­cif­ic man­date, it does ear­mark more than a bil­lion dol­lars for deten­tion beds. And in the mean­time, immi­grants con­tin­ue to be detained, deport­ed and sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies at a record pace.

We want Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to be a real reformer, not the deporter-in-chief,” said Marisa Fran­co, cam­paign orga­niz­er for the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work, in a state­ment about the Day of Action. He can give immi­grants relief with the stroke of a pen.” 

Rose Arri­eta was born and raised in Los Ange­les. She has worked in print, broad­cast and radio, both main­stream and com­mu­ni­ty ori­ent­ed — includ­ing being a for­mer edi­tor of the Bay Area’s inde­pen­dent com­mu­ni­ty bilin­gual biweek­ly El Tecolote. She cur­rent­ly lives in San Fran­cis­co, where she is a free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for a vari­ety of out­lets on social jus­tice issues.
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