At one point today, there were more than 750 people participating in a hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center, claimed Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with NWDC Resistance. The hunger strikers, who began refusing meals on April 10, are protesting allegedly poor conditions at the immigrant prison, including a lack of nutritional food at the cafeterias, delays in receiving medical care, slow court proceedings, and $1 a day pay for prison labor. NWDC, the largest immigrant prison on the West Coast, is operated by GEO Group, a Bill Gates-backed private prison company.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not classify these protests as hunger strikes until detainees refuse all meals, including commissary purchases, for at least 72 hours. However, although hunger strikers have crossed that threshold, ICE spokesperson Virginia C. Kice said the department is not recognizing the NWDC detainee's movement as such. Kice says some self-identified hunger strikers are still eating food purchased at the commissary.
"We don’t have a hunger strike," she said. "We have people refusing meals."
She continued: "People refuse meals, that’s not uncommon. They may not like what’s being served a particular day or they may not be hungry."
If ICE declares a hunger strike, the agency removes all participants to a "dedicated housing" unit, so they can "be closely monitored to ensure their welfare," according to official hunger strike protocols.
Kice said that the meals are prepared by GEO Group, which consults with registered dietitians to ensure detainees' have balanced diets. The prison operator also offers meals for detainees with dietary or religious restrictions, she said.
Ricky, a Guyanese national incarcerated at NWDC, told The Stranger on Monday that the facility's food "messes up people’s bowel movements" and that the menu lacks variety. “Every day, it’s rice and beans, rice and beans," he said.
ICE representatives have been meeting with folks detained inside the prison since they began their hunger strike on Monday and "virtually all day" today, Kice said. Department representatives have also been working to clear up some misconceptions, such as their ability to speed up immigration hearings, which is something only the Department of Justice, she said.
Here's an e-mail dispatch from David Gonzalez-Modesto, a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States as a child and is now detained at NWDC:
the 72 hour is up & we proceeded to end the hunger strike today at 12pm. the spirit right now is tiring & hungry but for the most part optimistic that there will be changes to come from our actions. the gaurds came this morning to make sure our well being was still in good health & to talk to all of us one on one about the hunger strike. we refused to talk to any of them because we all know all of that is a bunch of garbage. there offering these type of help just so they dont get sued. what we want from them is to come to terms on how they are working in making the changes we are demanding
Here is an audio dispatch from Oscar America Escobar, who is currently detained at the center and is participating in the hunger strike:
Although ICE isn't recognizing the protest at NWDC as a hunger strike, Villalpando claimed that more people, including women detained at the facility, are joining the strike.
"People detained tell us they are not eating," she said. "We believe them. We don't believe anything ICE says."