Today marks the third day detainees refused meals to protest conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the largest immigrant detention facility on the West Coast. About 16 people began a hunger strike—or, in Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials' terms, a "meal refusal"—on Tuesday after about 20 men were taken to solitary confinement for allegedly "planning a riot." That allegation came after the men protested a GEO Group guard's alleged assault of an 18-year-old man who arrived to the United States as an unaccompanied youth, according to the activist group NWDC Resistance.
"After his assault, GEO guards placed the facility on lockdown—no phones, no lawyer visits, not even lights," the group wrote in a statement released today. "Since then, the facility is on 'modified lockdown' and even those not held in solitary confinement have reportedly been told that they cannot talk to each other or their loved ones." (GEO Group is the private company that operates the detention center.)
In a statement, ICE representatives said the men "continued to defy officers’ instructions and disobey facility rules, putting themselves, other detainees, and center personnel at risk. Their actions also impacted the safe and orderly operation of the facility." According to ICE, 66 detainees were moved from their housing unit, 17 of them into solitary confinement, “for their safety and the safety of others at the center.”
When asked about the alleged assault of the 18-year-old, ICE Spokesperson Virginia Kice said that the department has a "zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities. The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigate all allegations of abuse or other misconduct and take appropriate action when such allegations are substantiated."
ICE officials only consider three men to be on hunger strike and will provide medical supervision, per department protocol.
"Several other detainees have been randomly refusing the facility’s prepared meals over the last several days, but all of these individuals still have access to the extensive selection of food and drinks offered through the commissary," the statement read.
In a statement released yesterday, ICE representatives said that the group of men "are NOT in solitary confinement," but are housed in a "special management unit." Although they are separated from the general detention center population, the detainees "continue to have freedom of movement within their housing area, as well as access to recreation, visitation, and other privileges."
But immigration activists disagree.
"We know that ICE lies—whatever they say is not true," Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with NWDC Resistance, told The Stranger. "People have been telling us since the beginning of this year how conditions have worsened. What we noticed after the last series of hunger strikes from April to June was that there was so much strength to keep organizing and uniting and protecting each other from the guards. They were afraid of the guards... that they were trying to portray [incarcerated individuals] as violent."
As part of their demonstration, strikers also issued a list of demands, which include the release of 20 men held in special management units back into the general population, improved training for detention center guards, contact visits between detainees and family members, and more nutritious food.
This demonstration marks the fourth hunger strike to raise awareness of conditions inside the detention center since a series of strikes launched in April. Before today, ICE categorized the men's demonstration as a "meal refusal" that didn't prevent them from eating provided food later.
"ICE and GEO have built this environment to provoke violence for an excuse to dismantle the whole unit," Villalpando claimed. "GEO and ICE is looking for ways to disorganize them. By placing them in solitary confinement, it's another way to retaliate."
She continued: "The way they’re being treated, the way they’re being talked to, the kind of language the guards use against them, how they humiliate them, they’re trying [to make these people] lose their dignity."