An immigrant detainee handed the note in the picture above to a lawyer on Friday outlining their reasons for going on hunger strike at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center, according to immigrants rights advocates, who say 1200 detainees are participating. "They were pretty adamant that their demands are improved working conditions and that this is a statement against the deportations every week. They're willing to keep striking until their demands are met," says the lawyer, who has represented dozens of clients at the facility for the past five years.
The lawyer requested anonymity out of fear of having visitation privileges revoked by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, saying, "I wouldn't want to have my clients suffer." In a separate visitation session, a second detainee confirmed the ongoing hunger strike, the lawyer says (after an unusually long wait time to see both clients).
Andrew Munoz, an ICE spokesman, said he isn't ready to comment yet. The agency considers anyone going without food for at least 72 hours to be on hunger strike.
According to the attorney, hundreds of detainees at the facility were inspired by a group of protesters who locked arms in the driveway of the privately-run facility last week. Those activists claimed to have blocked vehicles loaded with deportees from exiting. As I explained in that report, the facility has been criticized for alleged abuses, but continues to hold between 1200-1500 immigrant detainees admist a record-breaking deportation spree by the Obama administration. ICE pays GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut, to operate the facility and other immigrant detention centers around the country. The Nation reported last year that GEO, despite promises that it wouldn't, lobbied Congress on immigration reform and alternatives to detention (presumably against them).
"They saw the impact that made and so they chose themselves to take a stand," the lawyer explains. "They wanted to start it on a Friday because that's a day people are detained to a different cell to get deported." Detainees who speak Spanish were able to "coordinate from pod to pod" and plan the hunger strike while guards assumed they were talking about nothing special.
This appears to be the first instance of collective action against conditions at the facility by detainees in its history. They're not eating and not working—the detainees are paid $1 per day, the lawyer says, to work in the kitchen and in clean up crews. In response, "those who are more actively involved are getting their blankets, pillows, and clothes taken away," the lawyer says.
Last year, a hunger strike by thousands of inmates in California's prisons triggered calls for hearings on conditions in the jails and piecemeal reforms within the system.
"They're in high spirits and they're hopeful and they want to keep going as long as they can."
UPDATE: ICE issued the following statement confirming the strike but disputing the number of detainees participating: "As of Friday evening, approximately 750 ICE detainees, out of nearly 1,300 detainees currently housed at the Northwest Detention Center, declined to eat scheduled meals and indicated that they are on a hunger strike. The detainees are under continuous observation by detention center staff and medical personnel. In accordance with ICE detention standards, detainees who refuse food for 72 hours will be considered to be on a hunger strike and referred to the medical department for further evaluation."