A hunger strike and work stoppage at an immigrant detention center in Takoma, Washington has spread to a similar facility in Conroe, Texas, where at least 120 people on Wednesday entered their third day without food to protest abusive conditions and rising deportations nation-wide.
Both facilities are run by GEO Group — the notorious private prison company profiting from high levels of deportation and detention of suspected undocumented people under President Obama.
Hunger strikers in Washington recorded messages of solidarity for their counterparts in Texas. "The only thing I want to say is don’t be afraid," said Ramon Mendoza Pascual, on hunger strike in Washington. "We must keep going, so that we are heard and so that we can be free."
Supporters of the hunger strikers at the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas say that well over 100 people are participating. "We know there is a hunger strike in at least 3 cells, each holding 38 to 40 men" said Cristina Parker of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that is directly supporting the strike, in an interview with Common Dreams. Martina Grifaldo of Alianza Mexicana, also supporting the hunger strike, told Common Dreams the number could be greater.
Meanwhile, at least two people at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington have entered their 13th day of a hunger strike that launched earlier this month with at least 750 people refusing food. "We spoke to several families and did a head count of 11 people who have just joined the hunger strike over the weekend or have started then stopped but then started again," said human rights campaigner Maru Mora in an interview with Common Dreams.
"He's been there for seven months for the big crime of not having papers to work here." --Sandra Bonilla, wife of hunger striker in Conroe, Texas facility
Strikers are demanding more humane conditions in the facilities and a halt to deportations across the country. "[We demand] Federal Executive (Mr. President Barack Obama) use his presidential authority and order a total stop to the unjust deportations that are separating families, destroying homes, and bringing uncertainty, insecurity and unhappy futures to our children, our loved ones,” reads a hand-written letter released by the Takoma hunger strikers.
In Washington and Texas, strikers have faced retaliation for their peaceful protest, according to supporters. "ICE has isolated and segregated three men who they perceive to be leaders of the Texas strike," said Parker. "They have not talked to their families since Monday. An attorney told us they have been moved into solitary confinement in rooms with metal beds with no blankets or pillows and no toilet paper. The Guards are verbally abusing them."
The Washington hunger strikers have faced isolation as well as threats of force-feedings and deportation, say supporters.
"Everyone is so desperate for improving their conditions on the inside and improving the conditions of their families and other immigrants caught in the deportation machine that they would rather risk everything than go with the status quo," said Mora.
More suspected undocumented people have been deported under U.S. President Barack Obama than under any previous administration, with the number of deportations under his watch expected to reach two million next month.
This has meant booming business for the private prison industry, which runs half of all immigration detention beds, according to Parker. In a little known "bed mandate" established in 2007, Congress requires that federal immigration officials lock up an average of 34,000 people in immigrant detention facilities on a daily basis. The bill, which commits taxpayer funds for the incarceration, was heavily lobbied for by the private prison industry, including GEO. Once at these detention centers, people are often held for long periods of time while their case is reviewed.
As a result, immigrant detention facilities are now the most rapidly expanding area of private prisons, says Parker. GEO sits at the helm of this growth, as the second largest private prison conglomerate in the United States owning nearly 100 incarceration and mental health facilities across the world. This is despite accusations of prisoner abuse, medical neglect, rampant violence, and civil rights violations in GEO facilities, including hundreds of lawsuits — many of them settled before trial.
Parker says these problems are rampant throughout GEO's Texas facilities, including the Conroe center where the strike is taking place. "We consistently hear about overcrowding and poor quality food and not enough food and poor hygiene in the cells. Verbal abuse from guards is something we hear about often," she said.
Family members, who have staged vigils and press conferences to support the hunger strikes, say now is a hard time for those with loved ones who are detained at the GEO-run facilities.
"I feel very sad about what's happening to my husband. I'm having to work much harder for all our expenses and our children, because he's in prison," said Sandra Bonilla, whose husband is on hunger strike in the Conroe facility, in an interview with Common Dreams. "He's been there for seven months for the big crime of not having papers to work here."
"I won't lose hope," she added. "I don't think we should lose hope. I hope that what they do will touch the hearts of those who can make changes."