Immigrant Detainees Are Staging a Hunger Strike in Washington

The detainees, many of them facing deportation, claim that the food at Northwest Detention Center is meager and nearly inedible.

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Apr 12 2017, 9:00pm

On Tuesday evening, a general fatigue began to set in on Prince Edwards.

It had been almost two days since the 42-year-old Liberian-born man last ate at the privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, which houses immigrants awaiting deportation or a trial. But the food is partly what prompted Edwards to stop eating. Detainees meals' calorie counts always seem to come up short, and whatever does land on the trays is so foul that it borders on inedible.

Commissary is usually an alternative option behind bars, but the detention center and/or its food provider charge double what Edwards says he paid while doing time in Oregon, and that makes any supplemental food unattainable for many detainees. They could work for Northwest and buy chips or soup, but the center only pays $1 per day for labor.

What's worse is there's not any clear end in sight for many. Edwards, who was granted political asylum in 1999, is in his fourth month at the center, and he, like others, are being held in administrative detention while awaiting a court date. Administrative detention isn't supposed to be punishment, yet it feels worse than prison, Edwards says, and with three judges handling cases for over 1,500 inmates, the gears grind slowly.

Since there's little oversight of private immigration detention centers, and help from the federal government certainly isn't on the way, Edwards and at least 400 immigrants are partaking in a hunger strike to call attention to the problems.

"We believe that if we bring attention to what we're going through in our situation, our hunger strike, to the outside and to other people, they will know what's happening," Edwards tells MUNCHIES. "A hunger strike is one of the most effective ways of protesting in our situation. We don't believe in using violent means. … This is the only way we can make it known."

It's the fourth hunger strike at Northwest since 2014, and there's some evidence that they're having an impact, says Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist with Northwest Detention Center Resistance, a group supporting detainee rights. The first came just months before President Obama's executive action on immigration reform, and she says the subsequent protests raised awareness of the center, which otherwise maintains a low profile. Inmates refusing food for days signals the situation's seriousness, she says.

"Food is a basic need for survival as a human, so when you refuse it, you are making a statement," she says. "The only thing you have control over is your own body and what you put in your mouth, so this should tell everybody how strongly they feel about conditions they're facing. It's the only tool to call attention to these human rights abuses."

The majority of detainees at Northwest are low-income Latino men, Villalpando says, and there's a mix of documented and undocumented among them. Many are like Edwards, who are legal residents, committed a crime, served time in prison, and were immediately detained by ICE upon release. Such detainees are held at Northwest to see a judge who will likely deport them. The center, run by the GEO Group, also holds those who were caught up in ICE immigration raids.

Even if a judge grants a detainee release on bond, the bond is usually set at $10,000 to $15,000, Villalpando says. Unsurprisingly, judges are turfing more and more immigrants under the Trump administration, she adds.

But the part of the system that detainees are highlighting are the conditions inside the detention center, and Edwards says food quality and costs are a main concern. A three-ounce bag of coffee on commissary sold by Keefe, the private food service giant running the kitchen and commissary at Northwest, cost $2.15 in Oregon's prison system, Edwards says. At Northwest, it runs $4.60 for detainees, who earn less money for their work than inmates in Oregon. A box of oatmeal creme pies in Oregon cost $1.75, but at Northwest they are $3.50. And a three-pack of soap ran $1.20 in Oregon, but a single bar now costs $1.10, Edwards says. The examples go on, and he labels the prices "exploitation."

"There are people who were in prison with me who are free today. Their life is no different than mine, I'm no higher of a risk, so why should I be held at a different standard just because I'm an immigrant?"

The food rolling out of the kitchen is also somehow worse than in the prison system, Edwards adds. Keefe's "pizza" dinner is actually two hamburger buns with tomato sauce and a little cheese. That's served with a tiny portion of corn, peas, and lettuce, all of which constitute a typical dinner, Edwards says. Another common meal is a small amount of cold rice and beans with a tortilla.

"It's never enough food, or sometimes it's so bad that you don't want to eat it, so you're forced to buy more food at the higher prices," he says.

Edwards expects to be sent back to Liberia, where the political situation he escaped has improved, but he's unsure how long that will take. He questions why there aren't more judges to move the process along, and says he feels that he's being punished a second time for his crime.

"I made a mistake," says Edwards, who was convicted of first-degree rape and sexual abuse in 2009. "But I'm a low risk, I've done my time, and there are people who were in prison with me who are free today. Their life is no different than mine, I'm no higher of a risk, so why should I be held at a different standard just because I'm an immigrant?" he asks.

"Don't treat us like we're high-risk just because we're immigrants and use our situation to exploit us."

Of course, some Americans do see them as high-risk, and anti-immigrant sentiment has been a pillar of Trump's candidacy and presidency. Many of the detainees fit the description of the "bad hombres" on which he says the US must crack down, and there's not much sympathy for them.

There's also not much recourse, though there should be, says Dan Manville, an attorney with Michigan State University's Civil Rights Clinic. Since the detainees are administratively confined instead of criminally convicted, they have far more rights than prisoners.

"But it really doesn't work that way because in private contracting the prisons are in it for the money, and if they provided the detainees with everything that they're supposed to, then they'd probably lose money," Manville says. "All these centers are run with the profit motive as the primary concern. They also know that they're able to get away with it because the government isn't going to come in and ensure that detainees' rights are complied with. The government is complicit to what's going on because they don't want to do their duty, since they're also saving money."

In the meantime, a strike really is the best option, Manville says. Detainees and attorneys could bring a class action suit, but that would take years to wind through the legal system, so publicizing the problem and perhaps catching the attention of elected representatives who can move more quickly is worth a shot.

It's also up to those like Villalpando, who says she understands that much of the public doesn't care about immigrant detainees' rights, but adds that it's also a question about the larger system of which the detainees and private guards are a part.

"We know people are happy and comfortable in their capitalistic system, but we don't just think about ourselves. We think about our brothers and sisters and our families. They don't have to be Latino or Mexican. I don't care what they're in there for—I'm not here to judge them," Villalpando says. "I'm here to judge the system, and it's a system that … relies on division, fear, and ignorance. That's why these detention systems are hidden—so that no one knows about them."

She adds, "We are humans and we care about our community, family, and relatives, and we are going to fight or them and their freedom."

Edwards echoes that, and says he appreciates that people are paying attention to the issue and working on their behalf.

"We will continue to protest and hunger strike as long as it takes, until there's some resolution from ICE or GEO. We are in this for the long haul," he says.