by Ed Lyon
Regardless of what people without first-hand knowledge of prisons or detention centers believe, prisoners are generally not the blood-thirsty, brutal animals depicted in the media. In fact, especially in the face of SWAT-styled rapid response teams used within institutions, prisoners are mostly hopeless, helpless, often powerless individuals.
Even the most benign, traditionally-recognized form of protest used by prisoners to bring attention to and hopefully effect positive change for deplorable prison conditions—the hunger strike—is attacked by detention officials, courts and government agencies.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is charged with receiving, processing and detaining asylum seekers entering the country while their cases are reviewed. Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ICE does not own, staff and operate the majority of the detention facilities asylum seekers are housed in. Generally, private for-profit prison corporations build and staff these facilities and enter into contracts with ICE to house the detainees, supposedly within the policies, standards and rules set forth by ICE. Many local jails also house immigration detainees on a contract basis with ICE as well.
Hunger strikes have been occurring across the nation at these facilities since at least 2012, according to a June 2021 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), titled Behind Closed Doors: Abuse & Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers in U.S. Immigration Detention. Professor Ranit Mishori, a contributing author to the report, explained that hunger strikers “feel this is their last option to protest the conditions in detention or other issues.”
Senior ACLU staff attorney and co-author Eunice Cho identified one of those issues being immigrants having to plead their own asylum case, and as another author of the report, Joanna NaplesMitchell, pointed out, ICE cannot deport a hunger striking immigrant.
Cho stated force feeding hunger striking prisoners is considered unethical according to medical professionals and organizations. She added it is not illegal if an authorizing court order can be obtained. The report chronicled 15 cases from August 15, 2015 to August 2017 where ICE obtained these court orders for force feeding and related medical procedures, “in many cases these court orders rubber-stamp them,” Cho further stated.
Despite a force-feeding federal court order obtained by ICE for an East African asylum-seeking detainee, John Otieno, (a pseudonym) at GEO Group’s Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, local hospital medical staff refused to perform the procedure. GEO staff imposed it on Otieno the next day using six guards and three nurses to subdue him and implement it.
Although GEO Group’s staff shackled and restrained Otieno’s chest, arms and legs before sedating and feeding him through a plastic nasogastric tube inserted through his nose, the corporation denied responsibility for its actions. “All decisions pursuant to this ICE detention standard are made exclusively by medical professionals, a United States Attorneys Office, and a United States District Court,” an unidentified GEO Group spokesperson stated, then concluded “GEO staff never take action to intervene in the case of an individual engaged in a hunger strike without the express direction and authorization by ICE and a United States District Court.” Put simply, GEO claims it is “only following orders.”
Among other medical procedures performed on hunger strikers is forced urinary catheterization. This is a procedure where a plastic tube is inserted into and through the prisoner’s urethra and into the bladder in order to collect urine and other vitals during the strike as explained by Naples-Mitchell. She added this procedure “is illegal under international law,” and “It’s cruel, degrading treatment, or torture.” It is also extremely painful as anyone who has undergone catheterization can attest.
Once a detainee announces an intent to hunger strike, they are monitored for three days. If they do not eat, they are placed in “medical isolation,” analogous to solitary confinement or administration, for “observation.” Although GEO Group and ICE stated they do not retaliate against hunger strikers, guards told Otieno hunger striking “would negatively affect his asylum case and those of other detainees.” The ACLU/PHR report documented ICE trying to stop hunger strikes by threatening strikers with “deportation, excessive [uses of] force, or relocation to other facilities.”
Other methods used to end hunger strikes include limiting access to water, withholding commissary privileges and referral for prosecution. In one instance ICE confronted a hunger striker with an official from the consulate representing the country the striker was seeking asylum from.
Regarding his force-feeding ordeal, Otieno said, “You feel helpless, like a piece of trash.”
Editor’s Note: Prisoners have used hunger strikes to protest their conditions of confinement for decades if not centuries around the world. The most famous hunger strike is probably that organized by Provisional Irish Republication Army and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in 1981 at the Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland to protest their treatment and conditions. Ultimately, ten prisoners died in that struggle.
Prisoners at the American run concentration camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, where hundreds of prisoners have been held for almost two decades have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their conditions and unlimited confinement without trial and brutal torture. The American government’s response has been to double down on the torture and resort to brutal force feedings designed to inflict a maximum amount of pain on the prisoners. Another torture practice widely used at Guantanamo to punish hunger striking prisoners, which has not yet been done on American prisoners as far as we know, is “rectal feeding” where prison staff grind up food and force it into prisoners’ rectums. This practice has no known medical or legitimate benefit and is done solely to torture and degrade the hunger striking prisoners.
Surely it is a tribute to American greatness that immigration prisoners will starve themselves to remain here with the abuse and torture that such protest engenders from the federal government and its private for profit prison contractors.
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