A massive hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, entered its fifth day on Friday, with more than 750 immigrants detained at the facility joining the effort.
The detainees are demanding an improvement in quality of food, clarity and speed in their immigration proceedings, improved access to medical care, and the lowering of commissary prices.
The strike began at noon on Monday, when one hundred prisoners refused to eat their lunches. Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokeswoman for the activist coalition NWDC Resistance, told The Daily Beast that the current climate is the worst since President Donald Trump was elected.
Trump has announced stringent deportation policies and actions since his inauguration, including one national raid at the end of March that detained 367 undocumented immigrants in five separate operations, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of border security.
The Tacoma facility currently holds more than 1,400 immigrant detainees—almost at full capacity—all held under varying charges. Although exact figures are unknown, one prisoner told The Daily Beast that the majority of inmates had no criminal record and were instead detained as a result of expired visas or illegally entering the country.
ICE would not confirm exact numbers regarding the NWDC's current population.
Detainees in the facility receive only $1 per day for cleaning, cooking, and operationally running the prison. Strikers called for more in a letter that was circulated throughout NWDC prior to the strike, as well as demands that included expedited hearings, improvements to food and medical care, and price cuts to the commissary, where the cost of some items recently doubled.
One detainee, only identified as Christian, spoke to NWDC activists in a recording for their blog on Monday.
"The food they serve, they serve beans and rice seven days a week, three times a day,” Christian, who is about to turn 26, said in a conversation from inside the facility. “Commissary is very expensive and my family always gives us a little bit of money, and sometimes… spends hundreds of dollars.”
The following day, Christian was one of several detainees who were transported from NWDC in a two-bus transport to be deported to Mexico, according to Villalpando.
Even as more immigrants are deported, the facility's population continues to grow, as indicated by a Facebook video posted by NWDC Resistance showing buses entering the prison grounds.
According to posts on the same Facebook page, another hunger striker, Johnathan Guzman, said “I am doing the hunger strike not just for me but for everyone out there in the future.”
Guzman also mentioned that he was one of the people who stripped and re-waxed the floor in the detention center. He said that he stayed up three or four nights doing this work and was only given a cup of soup and some chips as payment.
Prince Edwards, 42, is also participating in the hunger strike. In an interview with The Daily Beast from the prison, he said he and other strikers are hoping ICE officials will guarantee there will be no retaliation for prisoners' strike actions –in writing––and discuss their demands.
He described rough conditions for those who require medical treatment while detained.
"[Another detainee] told me he was getting his blood drawn and the nurse had just taken the urine sample of another detainee… [who] didn't change his glove when drawing the blood.”
Prince was picked up by ICE the day of his release after eight years in federal prison four months ago. He intends to continue the hunger strike for as long as it lasts.
“The first eight hours was the hardest, but it’s about making a sacrifice for something you believe strongly in," he said. According to Prince, some other inmates had stopped performing cleaning duties, but he could not elaborate further because different units are kept separate, without much conversation and communication.
The detention center is the largest West Coast immigrant prison owned by private prison conglomerate GEO Group. GEO Group has 99,000 beds in its facilities, a third of whom live in prisons that are part of government partnerships, or prisons like the NWDC.
That third, according to CoStar, the commercial real estate information company, accounts for 45% of GEO’s revenue. Some of that revenue found itself in the pocket of Trump’s presidential campaign: according to financial documents filed by a Trump SuperPAC, "Rebuilding America," in August 2016, GEO Group donated $225,000 to the pro-Trump PAC.
The company maintained that the donation came from a subsidiary with no government contracts.
ICE protocol dictates that only individuals that have been observed to not eat at all are considered on a hunger strike. Then, they are counseled on medical risks. According to Edwards, ICE has not begun counseling yet in his portion of the prison.
Rose Richeson, a spokesperson for ICE’s Seattle field office, told The Daily Beast that the “so-called hunger strike” should be “correctly termed a ‘meal refusal.’” She referred The Daily Beast to ICE's hunger strike protocol.
“The number of detainees refusing prepared meals at the NWDC continues to decline and so far none of the detainees has missed a sufficient number of meals since noon on Monday, April 10, to be considered on a hunger strike,” Richeson said. Those striking claim that the number has increased to more than a quarter of the prison.
Richeson also said inmates are eating from the commissary instead; GEO went so far as to report all packaged food purchases from the commissary on April 9 as evidence that detainees are merely refusing to eat prepared food, rather than going on a “starvation” strike.
Tomas Madrigal, a researcher for activist organization Community to Community Development, told The Daily Beast that this isn't the case. “The hunger strike happened on April 10, 2017,” he explained. Edwards, behind bars, backed up his statement.
Richeson claimed that inmates are still eating commissary items.
"All detainees continue to have access to purchase items from the commissary and as long as a detainee is eating commissary items they are not considered to be on a hunger strike," Richeson said.
From the prison, Edwards told The Daily Beast, "They give us boxes to put our commissary to lock them up. So we did this the other day in full view of the security cameras to prove we weren't eating.”
NWDC Resistance claims cases of guards retaliating against detainees participating in the strike, with prisoners allegedly being threatened with cancelled court dates and lost privileges to activity that connects them with the outside world, like television.
Richeson denied that immigration court proceedings at the NWDC were in any way impacted by detainees refusing prepared meals.
In response to a request for an interview from The Daily Beast, GEO Group spokesperson Pablo Paez said "The Facility has always been focused on compliance with all mandated standards and ensuring the wellbeing of all residents in our care, and that remains our focus." He referred The Daily Beast to ICE for further questions.
Virginia Kice, a regional spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that “detainees who formally declare their intention to undertake a hunger strike will be transferred to a dedicated housing unit so they can be closely monitored to ensure their welfare. For those individuals, ICE will implement the hunger strike protocols, which includes close medical supervision and suspension of commissary privileges.”
Kice further stated that “all detainees who are engaged in a hunger strike will continue to be offered three meals daily and provided an adequate supply of drinking water or other beverages.”
ICE did not reply to how they would address demands from strikers.
Activists from NWDC Resistance have carried on an Occupy-style encampment outside of the facility and have daily rallies.
“We want the hunger strikers to know that they are not alone," NWDC Resistance said in a media release.