Private Prison Officials Allowed to Force-Feed Immigrant Hunger Strikers

Officials at a privately run immigration jail in Tacoma, Washington, have apparently obtained permission from a federal court to force-feed prisoners staging sustained hunger strikes, according to documents filed in federal court.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit last week asking a federal district court in Tacoma to issue a temporary restraining order preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from threatening hunger strikers at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) with force-feeding, solitary confinement and segregation. A federal judge canceled a hearing on the case this week and referred the lawsuit to a lower court.

Despite the legal setback, civil rights lawyers obtained a legal document filed by ICE stating that the federal district court in Tacoma and others have granted six orders allowing “involuntary” medical monitoring, hydration and feeding of hunger strikers at NWDC, according to NWDC Resistance, an activist group supporting hunger strikers at the immigration jail.

“Is NWDC the new Guantánamo?” asked Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with the group and a longtime US resident who believes ICE unsuccessfully targeted her for deportation due to her activism around immigration.

NWDC has seen waves of hunger strikes this year, beginning in February, when 120 prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility. Within weeks, civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit accusing an NWDC guard of severely beating a Mexican immigrant that jail officials incorrectly identified as a leader of the strike.

Over the summer, at least 60 prisoners went on strike to protest family separations at the border and conditions in immigration jails. Hunger strikes continued in solidarity with the national prison strike that ended earlier this month. However, supporters and civil rights lawyers say the number of strikers has dwindled to four because people detained at NWDC fear retaliation for protesting.

In the past, immigrants held at NWDC and other facilities have staged hunger strikes to call attention to GEO Group, a private prison company that runs the immigration jail and others like it across the country. The company has faced lawsuits in Washington and beyond for paying immigrant detainees as little as $1 an hour for performing labor that keeps private immigration jails running.

In some cases, prisoners jailed on immigration charges or awaiting deportation hearings worked through the night painting walls and buffing floors, only to be paid in bags of chips and candy, according to a lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson last year. Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected GEO Group’s motion to throw out the lawsuit, handing a hard-fought victory to the hunger strikers.

Now, hunger strikers are demanding adequate medical care and to be reunited with their families, according to Villalpando and other supporters in contact with people held in the jail.

“ICE could end all this by meeting the strikers’ demands of getting basic medical care,” Villalpando said. “But they have chosen not to. No one is safe under ICE custody; no one is safe at NWDC.”

The lawsuit challenging retaliation against hunger strikers was filed on behalf of two immigrants currently held at NWDC, Viacheslav Poliakov and Raquel Martinez Diaz. The lawsuit claims ICE violated the First Amendment rights of hunger strikers with threats of force-feeding, solitary confinement and other disciplinary actions.

These threats — along with the history of violent retaliation to protests at the facility — caused Poliakov, Martinez Diaz and other hunger strikers to end protests calling attention to conditions at the jail and protests against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies, according to the complaint.

Poliakov is a Russian citizen and Martinez Diaz is a citizen of Mexico, and both are awaiting deportation proceedings. Civil rights attorneys have long argued that everyone living in the United States is entitled to rights under the Constitution, regardless of their immigration status.

After facing a number of protests, NWDC officials have a protocol for responding to hunger strikers, which can involve medical supervision and, if medically necessary, obtain a court order to force-feed and hydrate a prisoner who refuses to eat for long periods of time, according to statements ICE filed with the court in its defense.

ICE said Poliakov had accepted medical attention, and GEO Group never reported that Martinez Diaz was staging a hunger strike. ICE argued that employees at the detention centers work for GEO Group, not ICE, and federal agencies cannot be held liable for the actions of its contractors. The judge has indicated in court orders that he agrees and is expected to issue a decision in ICE’s favor.

Civil rights attorneys filed another request for the court to intervene on Wednesday, claiming Martinez Diaz ended a hunger strike on September 17 after an “encounter with a guard.” The judge denied the request.