At lunchtime on Monday, about 100 detainees at Tacoma Northwest Detention Center launched a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility, which is the largest immigrant prison on the West Coast. That number reportedly grew to 400 by Tuesday, claims activist group NWDC Resistance.
According to a letter emailed to reporters, the hunger strikers are demanding lower commissary prices, more recreational time, better food, speedier court proceedings, prompter medical care, and higher pay for prison labor.
The Northwest Detention Center houses undocumented immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. The facility is operated by GEO Group, a Bill Gates-backed private prison company.
Ricky, a Guyanese national who has been housed at Northwest Detention Center for more than three months, addressed some of those grievances in a phone interview with The Stranger Monday evening. “The food messes up people’s bowel movements,” he says. The menu also apparently lacks variety. “Every day, it’s rice and beans, rice and beans.” He continues:
Every day people complain about the medical care. I think one guy even tore his ACL playing basketball because the pavement is so slippery. A lot of guys are complaining about how they have non-stop lights. They dim it, but not enough. It messes with your sleep.
Ricky, who arrived in the United States in 1984, says that the commissary prices at Northwest Detention Center are unusually high:
Coming from state prison, the ramen soup, we could buy the whole package for $5 and something cents all together. Here, they have individual packages for Ramen for 57 cents. A pack of oatmeal for 60 cents. But in prison you get it for 2 dollars and something cents. It’s outrageous.
He adds that the prison pays minuscule wages for labor. For waxing the floors or cleaning the showers, Ricky makes $1 a day. When the prison enlisted detainees to wax and strip the floors for four days, he says, each worker also received a candy bar and soda for their labor.
Ricky said that guards had not retaliated for the strike on Monday, but NWDC Resistance reported today that ICE has halted court hearings and that some pods have seen their television access revoked, apparently in response to the hunger strike.
In a statement, ICE said the action at Northwest Detention Center does not yet rise to their threshold for a hunger strike, calling it instead a “meal refusal.” Only after prisoners refuse to eat for 72 hours, including food purchased at the commissary, does the agency declare that a hunger strike is happening.
This isn’t the first time immigrants have gone on hunger strike to protest substandard conditions at Northwest Detention Center. In 2014, more than 1,200 prisoners stopped eating, some going 56 days without food, and for some of the same reasons that detainees launched their hunger strike on Monday.
Activists are currently rallying outside the prison, and plan to hold a solidarity demonstration at 6 pm today.
This a developing story. We’ll keep you posted.