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(Photo Courtesy of Northwest Detention Center Resistance)

'In the Name of Justice': Hunger Strike Sweeps For-Profit Immigrant Detention Center

People detained at the GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Washington state protest record-high deportations nationwide and mistreatment within the prison.

Sarah Lazare

The third hunger strike this year is sweeping a for-profit immigrant detention center in Washington state as hundreds demand "dignity and justice towards immigrants," including an end to the record-high level of deportations nationwide and the mistreatment of those held within the prison.

Approximately 200 people detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington—run by the private GEO Group—launched the hunger strike Friday, citing the failure of prison and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to live up to the promises they made in the wake of their last hunger strike to address similar demands. This first wave went without food for 72 hours, during which the protest spread to another pod of approximately 40 to 80 prisoners, who announced Monday they were commencing a three-day strike, said Maru Mora Villalpando of Northwest Detention Center Resistance, comprised of undocumented immigrants, families of people detained, and allies.

Villalpando told Common Dreams she has not heard from the second wave of hunger strikers since Monday morning, but supporters assume they continue their peaceful protest as planned. "I am worried they are being put in solitary confinement which happened during the last strike," she said, referencing previous retaliation, which included solitary confinement for up to 30 days and threats of force-feedings.

The strikers are protesting the conditions of their confinement, which they say include inadequate meals; exorbitant fees for the commissary; and severely under-paid labor ($1 per day) to cook and clean for the facility. "GEO provides inadequate nourishment which creates a demand for commissary food at inflated prices, which induces detainees to work for essentially no pay and then profits from families’ contributions to those commissary accounts," reads a statement from supporters emailed to Common Dreams.

Cipriano Rios, one of the hunger strike leaders, declared in a letter passed to supporters on the outside on Sunday: "We are certain that if it wasn’t for all the communication restrictions we face, more detainees would have joined, reaching more than two thirds of the total population. Our action is in the name of justice, hunger for freedom; therefore the hunger of the body, for most of us, is not above the claim for justice. Not one more! Stop families' destruction!" His letter, which was sent to Common Dreams, included 27 signatures—representing just a fraction of those who participated in the strike, due to the difficulty of passing written communication around the facility, said Villalpando.

Upon receiving word of the strike, over 150 people from across the state gathered outside the GEO facility over the weekend to participate in support vigils and, for some, an overnight encampment. Members of NWDC Resistance say the action was organized around Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead to honor and mourn "the loss to their families and communities of all those deported and locked away in the NWDC." The actions build on the regular presence supporters have maintained outside the prison—including weekly vigils and actions—since March.

Villalpando said it is poignant that the hunger strike continues through election day. "The hunger strikers are aware of political situation," she said. "They are victims of the political situation running the country."

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