On Sunday evening, a group of women immigrants detained inside Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center ended a nearly week-long hunger strike. The women stopped eating on April 18 to raise awareness of conditions inside the facility, which is owned by GEO Group, a private prison company. Detainees' demands included properly cleaned laundry, prompter medical care, reasonable commissary prices, access to educational programs, raising the $1 per day prison wage, more nutritional cafeteria food, and contact visits "so parents can hug their children."
A group of male detainees joined the protest by boycotting the prison commissary, which is owned by GEO. Some of them planned to continue for about a month, said Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with NWDC Resistance.
"The hunger strike is over for now—it's paused, not stopped," she told activists during a rally yesterday. "We don't want [detainees] to go on hunger strike. No one should have to stop eating to call attention to these human rights violations."
Rose M. Richeson, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told The Stranger that neither her department nor GEO ever declared that detainees went on hunger strike, based on ICE protocols. Instead, some detainees participated in a "meal refusal," which could include refusing one meal, but eating food from the cafeteria or commissary later, she said.
The women's hunger strike followed on the heels of another hunger strike, in which more than 750 people detained at the prison participated to demand changes inside the facility. Despite hunger-strikers' efforts, conditions have not improved, said Villalpando.
Despite negotiating menu changes with ICE officials and ending their hunger strike, the meals, which several detainees told The Stranger primarily consists of beans, have not improved or changed.
In fact, "the food only got worse," possibly in "retaliation for the strike," said Villalpando.
Richeson said that ICE and GEO are currently in the process of ordering new food items, based on negotiations with detainees. The adjusted menus will be implemented in the next few weeks because "it can't change over night," she said.
Villalpando said retaliation from ICE or GEO officials is a real fear inside NWDC. Since the first hunger strike began on April 10, four male detainees were transferred to NORCOR, a prison in The Dalles, Oregon, which some activists and detainees believe is another act of retaliation, she claimed.
"We do not retaliate against individuals who want to present their own views," said Richeson. "We make transfers all the time from one facility to another."
Transfers may depend on external factors, including court proceedings, where a detainee's family resides, or "if they are in the process of being removed," she said. ICE did not immediately have information about the men who were allegedly transferred to the Oregon prison.