Starting at noon, immigrant activist Maru Mora Villalpando will refuse food for 72 hours outside the Northwest Detention Center in the hopes of relaunching a hunger strike within the Tacoma immigration detention center itself. On Wednesday, Nestora Salgado, a US and Mexican citizen who spent two years in a Mexican prison after organizing community policing forces to fight cartels, will join her.
Villalpando's organization, NWDC Resistance, reported that detainees started hunger striking on June 15 in protest of detention conditions. The striking detainees demanded that court hearings be expedited and asked for improvements in mental and physical healthcare. Villalpando told The Stranger that one detainee had attempted suicide as recently as a week ago, and that detainees they had spoken to felt postponed immigration hearings were dealt out as retaliation for taking part in another wave of hunger strikes earlier this year.
"There's a lot of people with different mental illnesses," Villalpando said. "We've also been told that people faint, they fall on the floor, and no one picks them up. That's very traumatizing."
NWDC says as many as 25 people had joined the protest, but they paused the effort on June 18 because of detainees who felt ill and a sense of a lack of unity.
"The audio that we have from one of the strikers was that they decided to go about it in the first place because they felt that a lot of people were giving up," Villalpando said. "And they decided not to give up, even though they have not seen any changes."
Listen to that audio, in Spanish, here:
Two months ago, at least 750 detainees refused meals for up to six days, according to Villalpando. The last protest dealt with demands over delayed medical care, commissary prices, access to educational programs, prison wages, cafeteria food, and contact visits. Nevertheless, a spokesperson from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told The Stranger that "neither her department nor GEO ever declared that detainees went on hunger strike, based on ICE protocols." Instead, ICE claimed the detainees partook in "meal refusal," which didn't preclude eating from the cafeteria or commissary later.
In response to questions from The Stranger, ICE repeated previous statements that detainees never went on an official hunger strike, saying that it does not categorize meal refusals as such unless detainees go 72 hours without eating, including snacks from the commissary. "ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees," said spokesperson Rose Riley.
After the last round of hunger strikes, during which dozens of supporters rallied at an encampment outside the facility, Villalpando told Ana Sofia that the food at the detention center had gotten worse. Rose Richeson, a spokesperson for ICE, told The Stranger at the time that ICE and GEO Group were in the process of ordering a new menu.
Update 6/20/17: ICE spokesperson Rose Riley confirmed that a detainee attempted suicide last week. "The detainee remains under continuous supervision by medical staff and has not expressed further suicidal thoughts or tendencies," Riley said in an e-mailed statement.
There are suicide prevention posters in English and Spanish posted in the NWDC, as well as bilingual posters highlighting the phone number to report any concerns to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General. Additionally, there are phones available in the facility with direct lines to every consulate that detainees can utilize toll free if they wish to reach out to the consular staff of their native countries.