People detained at a privately-run immigrant detention center in Washington have been thrown in solitary confinement and cut off from communication after participating in a hunger strike against inhumane conditions in the facility and soaring deportations nation-wide. Now, they are going on the offensive—seeking a restraining order against Immigration and Customs Enforcement on charges they were unjustly retaliated against for exercising their constitutionally-protected right to protest.
"They are whistle-blowers," said human rights campaigner Maru Mora Villalpando, who is directly supporting the protests, in an interview with Common Dreams. "Now that people are paying attention, they are using torture against them by putting them in solitary confinement."
The peaceful protest began at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington on March 7, and according to Villalpando, at least 240 people are withholding food. Protesters are demanding an end to deportations, as well as higher-quality food and medical care, pay for work inside the detention center (they currently receive just $1 for a day's worth of labor), and an end to extremely high commissary prices.
Numerous reports have emerged that people who are perceived to be leaders of the protests have been targeted by authorities at the facility with solitary confinement, threats of deportation, and other punitive measures. The facility is run by GEO Group — the notorious private prison company profiting from high levels of deportation and detention of suspected undocumented people under President Obama.
Andres Ramirez-Martinez, Manuel Uriostegui, and Ericson Gonzales are the plaintiffs in the motion for a temporary restraining order, which is being filed by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services and is slated for a hearing Friday morning. They say that corrections authorities invited approximately 20 detainees to meet with an assistant warden to discuss the hunger strike, but instead they were handcuffed and moved to solitary cells with no explanation.
"I was handcuffed and placed in administrative segregation where I am locked in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day," said Uriostegui, according to a statement released by supporters of the hunger strike. "My cell has a bed, sink, and toilet and is not very big. . . I am also only allowed to shower three days a week and cannot participate in programming. I was not told why I was placed in administrative segregation, or if or when I would be released from segregation.”
“Retaliating against and punishing immigrant detainees engaged in peaceful protests is an unlawful attempt to chill free speech rights. Like all civil detainees, they have free speech rights protected by the Bill of Rights,” said ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne.
Those locked inside the NWDC are not the only ones facing retaliation for peaceful protest. People held at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas—also run by GEO—have faced solitary confinement, communications blackouts, and deportation for participating in a similar hunger strike inspired by their Washington counterparts. Hunger striker Manuel Martinez-Arambula was deported Thursday, according to organizers supporting the protests.
The hunger strikes come amid growing U.S. movements against soaring deportations under Obama, which will soon reach 2 million. On Saturday, immigrant justice advocates across the United States will rally for an immediate halt of deportations.
Said Villalpando, "The eyes of the world are watching right now."