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Hunger Strikes by Immigrant Detainees Expose Abuses by ICE, Private Detention Centers

A series of hunger strikes over the past two years by detainees at federal immigration detention facilities from Washington state to Pennsylvania have called for an end to the incarceration and deportation of undocumented immigrants, and exposed abuses and deficiencies in privately-operated, for-profit detention centers.

“The fortifications, the walls that attempted to contain our participation have cracked and with ever growing unity we will finish knocking them down,” said a group of detainees at the GEO Group-run Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, in a written statement announcing the end of a 56-day protest in May 2014.

The hunger strikes, which at one time included around 1,200 immigrant detainees nationwide, began on March 7, 2014, two weeks after protesters outside NWDC blocked deportation buses and vans from entering or exiting the facility. Ten days later, after hearing that prisoners at NWDC were refusing to eat or perform work, detainees at the Joe Corley Detention Center (JCDC) in Conroe, Texas – also run by the GEO Group – joined the hunger strike.

Former detainees reportedly rallied outside the facilities to demonstrate their support of the hunger strikers, according to CBS. “A hunger strike is the only tool they feel like they have,” said Francisca Porchas, one of the protesters.

Detainees at both facilities demanded better living conditions, better food, and lower commissary prices and phone rates. NWDC detainees also demanded that they be released on bond, as opposed to spending months or even years locked up and unable to provide for their families while awaiting immigration hearings. Further, they called for better medical treatment and an end to GEO’s contract to operate the facility. reported the number of protesters at an immigrant detention center in El Paso, Texas was higher than initially thought, totaling 54 South Asian asylum seekers who joined the hunger strike in mid-April, protesting the denial of phone access or other means of communicating with their friends and family members.

In April 2015 there were news reports of a hunger strike involving women detainees at the Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas, operated by the GEO Group. When PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann raised that issue at GEO’s annual shareholder meeting on May 5, 2015, however, a company executive denied there was a hunger strike, claiming the women were engaged in a “boycott of dining facilities.”

Further, on October 28, 2015, around 500 women originally from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil and Europe participated in a hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Tyler, Texas, according to advocacy groups DRUM and Grassroots Leadership, though Mother Jones magazine reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had denied the women were participating in the protest, calling the news coverage “misleading.” ICE requires detainees to refuse food for 72 hours before they are considered to be on a hunger strike. The T. Don Hutto facility is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

In November 2015, around 150 detainees in at least six detention facilities in California, Alabama, Colorado and Texas protested their indefinite detention and deportation policies. Some had been detained for over two years.

These examples represent just a portion of the more than 1,000 immigrants and asylum seekers who participated in hunger strikes and protests in 2015, as reported by Mother Jones. Other protests occurred at the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana and the El Paso Processing Center in Texas.

Possibly spurred by the hunger strikes at NWDC and JCDC, President Obama ordered a review of his administration’s immigration enforcement policies about a week after those protests began. Two policies under scrutiny are the so-called “bed mandate” – which requires ICE to detain a minimum number of immigrants at any given time – and mandatory detention, which requires undocumented immigrants to be incarcerated indefinitely while a deportation review is pending.

The bed mandate means the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must incarcerate a “target” number of immigrants – the current quota is about 34,000 – in order to receive its congressionally-approved budget appropriation. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.46]. Due to the bed mandate, which was introduced in 2007 during the Bush administration, facilities like NWDC and JCDC are packed with immigrants detained for minor offenses, including traffic violations. Although many of the detainees could safely be released on community supervision or GPS monitoring, they remain in secure facilities.

Meanwhile, the GEO Group bills the federal government about $160 per day to house each immigrant detainee; other contractors, including CCA, charge even more. ICE spends around $2 billion annually on immigrant detention.

Another hunger strike was launched in October 2015 at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California, operated by GEO. The LA Times reported that an ICE spokeswoman said the number of hunger striking detainees was inflated, claiming it was around 30. Despite resistance from more than 25 members of Congress due to alleged medical neglect, the Adelanto facility was expanded by 650 beds last year.

In 2013, legislation proposing an end to the bed mandate and mandatory detention failed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Campaign donations may have had something to do with the demise of the bill; GEO Group’s political action committee alone had donated more than $100,000 to state, local and federal candidates during the 2014 election cycle. Both CCA and GEO also have spent millions of dollars lobbying on the federal level, including lobbying focused on immigration-related issues. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.56].

“It’s a wasteful taxpayer giveaway to special interests that hurts law enforcement and is inconsistent with the way we approach immigration in this country,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who sponsored the legislation to repeal the bed mandate.

Three times as many women from the Northern Triangle of Central America entered the United States in 2014 than in the previous year, according to Reality Check. Almost all would have qualified for asylum under ordinary circumstances, were it not for hurdles implemented to curb the flow of immigrants entering the U.S. “Simply we ask for justice,” said one female detainee, as reported by Grassroots Leadership in October 2015.

In Washington state, the NWDC hunger strikers compelled at least one state lawmaker to propose legislation creating minimum detention standards for immigrants. The bill, introduced by state Rep. Adam Smith, would address bed quotas – which he called “inherently wrong” – and the privatization of facilities like NWDC. The legislation is dependent on any action that President Obama and Congress might take to deal with immigration.

Detainees at the CCA-run Stewart Detention Center in rural Georgia protested in September 2015, resulting in a crackdown by the company – including placing some detainees in solitary confinement. “As a result of the disturbance, CCA implemented lockdown procedures in accordance with an established policy in order to ensure the safety of both detainees and facility employees,” ICE said in a statement. The detainees were protesting their conditions of confinement, including poor food and unfair punishment.

In April 2016, several immigrants at Stewart began refusing to eat in a move that attorney Helen Parsonage, who represents multiple detainees, said was a protest over their length of confinement. “There are a number of detainees at Stewart Detention Center that are being held, despite the fact that they don’t have a final deportation order – no contest, no nothing,” she noted, according to the Huffington Post. In May 2016, ICE unsuccessfully tried to obtain a court order to force-feed a Stewart detainee, Alaa Ismail Yasin, who had refused solid food for three weeks. See: United States v. Yasin, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00167-CDL.

At NWDC, federal immigration and GEO Group officials allegedly retaliated by putting some of the hunger strikers in solitary confinement and threatening to force-feed them. Similar allegations surfaced at JCDC.

“Immigrants in detention should not have to go to such extreme lengths to blow the whistle on mistreatment within ICE’s vast and largely privatized immigration detention system,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “GEO Group, the for-profit corporation that operates both these detention centers, has a well-documented track record around Texas of canceled contracts and scandal-ridden facilities, including at several prisons for immigrants in Texas.”

That track record has included “serious workplace injuries suffered by detainees laboring for $l.00/day; possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars of unaccounted telephone funds held back by the facility upon detainees’ deportations; and the use of solitary confinement and prison transfers in response to detainees’ peaceful protests,” according to a statement by detainees released by the organization Latino Advocacy.

“With certainty we affirm that [prison officials] did not succeed in containing and silencing the voice of those on the inside, the voice of the detained. They did not succeed in hijacking our emotions and our disposition to struggle despite drastically limiting our rights and falsely accusing us of insurrection,” the statement continued. “The campaign to marginalize us carried out by a cruel and unscrupulous bureaucracy that represents immoral and indecent interests cannot contain a just struggle that uses peaceful methods to make itself heard.”

Most recently, 22 women immigrant detainees at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania began a hunger strike in August 2016. The protest lasted 16 days and was renewed on August 31. Some of the detainees have been held, along with their children, for a year. They also alleged retaliation by ICE for participating in the protest, saying they were threatened with separation from their children.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on August 29, 2016 that it was conducting a review of privately-operated immigration detention facilities, following a decision by the Department of Justice to phase out federal private prisons. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.28]. However, given that approximately 70% of ICE’s detention capacity is through contractors, it is unlikely that any substantive changes can be made so long as the detainee bed mandate remains in effect, since the agency needs the bed space that private prison companies provide.

Sources:,, Los Angeles Times, ABC News,,,,, The Stranger,,,,,,, Huffington Post,, New York Times,,

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Related legal case

United States v. Yasin