ICE and private prison GEO threaten hunger strikers at NW Detention Center in Tacoma

On May 13, 13 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., went on hunger strike for 10 demands addressing the poor conditions inside. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and partner GEO Group, the private-prison contractor, responded with a combination of deceit, threats and other forms of repression such as solitary confinement, defined by many as torture. This decreased the hunger strikers to four, though numbers of hunger strikers quickly grew and spread to additional units as word got out about the strike, the deceitful behavior of the staff and the support from community organizers. La Resistencia held two Solidarity Days right outside the detention center on May 14 and 15. 

May 15 Solidarity Day with caravan from Oregon at Northwest Detention Center. Credit: La Resistencia. Used with permission.

According to a May 17 press release by La Resistencia, “… an administrative official for GEO promised to not send them to solitary confinement if the hunger strikers finally ate; soon after, the promise was broken when the protesters were violently isolated. The GEO official, per the account, explicitly stated the move was a direct consequence of the protesters’ statements to the media and their relationship with La Resistencia.” 

ICE and GEO are threatening to force-feed the hunger strikers while denying them clean water or none at all. One hunger striker commented, “It’s an injustice, all that they’re doing so we can’t express our rights for better conditions. First, we are made false promises and then punished. They don’t want us to be united. All that we’re doing is seeking the conditions to feel human.” 

All of this comes on the backdrop of the published report on sexual violence inside NWDC released by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, titled, “Calls to Nowhere: Reports of Sexual Abuse and Assault Go Unanswered at NWDC.” It chronicles more than sixty allegations of sexual abuse and assault inside NWDC in the last decade. One of the survivors joined the hunger strike only to be moved to solitary confinement within a day, keeping the survivor from telling his story. 

The collective efforts also exposed NWDC’s poor response to COVID-19 and their exploitative, cruel practices. The hunger strikers’ fifth demand, “For our jobs to be returned to us — with just pay,” alludes to the recent federal judicial order mandating the NWDC pay detained workers minimum wage for any work performed inside. The NWDC’s answer was to eliminate all jobs, essential for sanitary living conditions, leaving detainees to suffer in squalor, coinciding with another COVID uptick at the facility. Just this month, 14 people, staff and detainees, have tested positive for COVID-19. This is according to ICE reports per order from a federal judge. 

Since the start of the year, there have been 162 cases reported in the facility and two units inside the detention center are in quarantine. Without a people’s movement, none of this would have come to light. A people’s movement is a winning movement for dignity and humanity both inside and out of detention. 

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