Imprisoned Immigrant Hunger Strikers Face Abuse as Their Health Deteriorates

The exterior gate of the Otay Detention Center, where inmates are currently hunger striking for better living conditions. (Photo: BBC World Service)The exterior gate of the Otay Detention Center in San Diego, California, where prisoners are hunger striking for better living conditions. (Photo: BBC World Service)

On the evening before Thanksgiving, over a hundred asylum seekers – most from South Asian countries – began a hunger strike protesting conditions in detention centers across the United States. Hunger strikers at various facilities, including the Theo Lacy Facility and Otay Detention Center in California, as well as the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, are calling for improved conditions for asylum seekers in immigration detention centers. On November 30, detainees from facilities in Adelanto Detention Facility in California, Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado, and South Texas Detention Facility joined the hunger strike. Since then, 15 detainees from the Krome immigration detention center in Florida also joined the protest. Their demands include an end to lock up quotas, indefinite detention and all deportations. This week the situation escalated in a few facilities, although the Theo Lacy and Otay strikers ended their strike after reaching an agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Most hunger strikers have passed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s credible fear screening process, which qualifies detainees to be released on parole. However, many have been detained in these facilities for over two years.

These hunger strikes are the latest of a series protesting similar conditions in detention centers across the country. Strikers have said that detention centers are woefully inadequate in their maintenance of basic human rights, offer limited visitation rights, and accuse detention officers of verbal and physical abuse. At the Theo Lacy facility, four strikers were placed in solitary confinement due to the protests. According to a press release by South Asian activist organization DRUM, detainees at the Etowah facility are reporting disturbing medical abuses including forced catheterization while being verbally abused. Recent reports from within the Etowah and Adelanto centers have described deteriorating conditions, including sleep deprivation – with guards waking up detainees every 15 minutes – and threats of force feeding. Seven detainees from the Etowah center have been sent to medical units for urgent care. In an attempt to sever communications between the hunger strikers and the outside world, the Krome, Etowah and Aurora centers have cut off calls to known supporters of the hunger strike.

Fahd Ahmed, executive director of DRUM, said in a press release that the current crisis in immigration detention centers “is a failure of the system, and … a failure of humanity.” In response to what can only be seen as Guantanamo-esque measures in these detention centers, DRUM has called for “urgent intervention” in what has now become a “life and death situation.”

In a report released in 2012 by the Detention Watch Network, two of these detention facilities – the Theo Lacy Facility and Etowah County Detention Center – were deemed among the worst in the United States. The watchdog organization accused these facilities of human rights violations, including lack of access to proper medical care, legal advice and recreation facilities, as well as racially discriminatory treatment and, in some instances, allegations of sexual assault by prison staff. The Etowah County Detention Center is violating ICE’s own detention center standards by offering no legitimate outdoor recreation facility. In its place the center offers what detainees refer to as “the sweatbox,” a cement room with relatively small windows providing a circulation of air that ICE has deemed sufficient enough to meet the “outdoor recreation” requirement.

An October 2015 report by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Detention Watch Network details the lack of transparency and independent oversight over conditions in detention centers. According to the report, inspections carried out by the Office of Detention Oversight and the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations, are “not designed to capture actual conditions of detention for the population at a given facility.” In 2010 ICE had tried to end its contract with Etowah, however, a series of political backlashes by county officials and members of Congress led ICE to delay and later abandon its plans to end their contract.

Activists claim that at the heart of these prolonged detentions is a controversial “bed quota” policy set by the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which states that ICE “shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.” The controversy is related to whether “maintain” means that these beds must be filled or whether they must simply be available. On top of the bed quota, detention centers that involve private prison contractors – such as the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA – often negotiate to ensure that they make a profit on a certain number of beds. The Otay Mesa Detention Center has a guaranteed minimum of 900 beds, which guarantees that the facility will be paid by ICE for 900 beds regardless of whether they are needed. Two of the biggest private prison corporations, the Geo Group and CCA, have a total of 4,063 and 1,935 guaranteed minimums respectively.

Detention Watch Network argues that bed quotas and guaranteed minimums act as a de facto baseline on how many asylum seekers must be locked up, putting “substantial pressure [on ICE] to funnel immigrants into detention in order to keep beds filled.” This argument has also been made by members of Congress, such as Rep. John Culberson, who – in a heated exchange with ICE Director Sarah Saldaña this past April – said, “You feel like the language does not require for you to use the beds, so I think the language may require a little tweaking.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has repeatedly argued that he does not believe the bed quota must be filled with people.

Yet, one thing is clear: Detainees who do not pose a legitimate threat to society are being detained for prolonged periods of time without parole in detention centers that often violate their basic human rights. The attempt to close down the Etowah Detention Center is indicative of how ICE has continued to use facilities with substandard human rights conditions in order to meet the requirements of the bed quota policy.

Detention Watch Network estimates that around 60 percent of beds in immigration detention centers are operated by private prison corporations. The watchdog group estimates the CCA makes $752 million a year from federal contacts and has seen the value of their stock double since the quotas were enacted in 2009.

At a national press call coordinated by DRUM, Mohamed Aminul Islam, a former detainee and hunger striker in El Paso in October, recounted his harrowing journey into the United States. He fled a politically tumultuous Bangladesh and traveled across South and Central America to seek asylum in the United States. Speaking through a translator Islam recounted stories of verbal abuse by the staff at the El Paso Detention Center as well as the threat of force-feeding through tubes in order to end the hunger strike. Despite passing his credible fear finding, Islam was held in El Paso for nearly a year before being released in November.

In attempts to draw attention to the asylum seekers conditions, on Dec. 3 supporters of the hunger strikers picketed outside Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign office. Sen. Bernie Sanders was the first to issue a statement in support of the protesters, which said, “These aspiring Americans should not be criminalized, subjected to dehumanizing solitary confinement or indefinitely detained. The United States must meet our international responsibilities to families seeking refuge.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley then told the Huffington Post that “we have to end immigrant detention, period.” While a representative from the Clinton campaign greeted protesters outside her office, her response was comparatively tepid. “Hillary Clinton believes our immigration enforcement and detention system must be humane, and ensure the dignity, safety and well-being of every human being,” she said.

Jahed Ahmed, a former detainee at the El Paso detention center, was invited to speak to Sen. Sanders at his Families First conference on Dec. 7. He asked, “As a senator would you be willing to give a call to ICE or DHS and inquire about these asylum seekers, deportations and the consequences?” Sanders replied in the affirmative. “Above and beyond immigration reform, we have a very broken criminal justice system … the whole issue of trying to better understand how we can make sure that people who should not be in jail are not being detained is of great interest to me,” he said.

Recent political instability in South Asia, and ICE’s own assessments, evince the credibility of fear claimed by these asylum seekers, especially those fleeing the most recent wave of political violence in Bangladesh. Yet, they flee persecution in their own countries, only to encounter further violations of their human dignity in the abject conditions of these detention centers. “The nature of hunger strikes is to disrupt the status quo,” said DRUM’s Fahd Ahmed, acknowledging both the urgency of their situation and the fact that there is no guarantee in their protests.

After the last wave of hunger strikes in El Paso and LaSalle, the results were varied. A majority of detainees in El Paso were released – although the most recent reports suggest a renewed threat of deportation. At LaSalle no detainees were released. Sanders’ statement represents a move in the right direction, however, deteriorating conditions in detention centers draw an increasingly bleaker view. Yet, as Fahd Ahmed put it, “when every aspect of your life is controlled this is the only method to raise your voice.”