Immigrant detainees outraged by shoddy food, high commissary prices, and the government’s failure to reform its “broken”—President Obama’s words—immigration system began a second hunger strike on Wednesday at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which is run by GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison corporation.
Already, one of the hunger strikers has been placed in solitary confinement, according to a document sent to The Stranger by a paralegal who visited the hunger strikers today.
Solitary confinement is the equivalent of what immigration officials have generally described as “administrative detention” or “administrative segregation.” The document (full image) states that Cipriano Rios-Alegria was transferred to a “special management unit.”
“Pending investigation for trying to recruit other detainees for hunger strike,” it says.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which contracts with GEO to run the prison, refused to confirm the authenticity of the document, citing privacy concerns. Spokesman Andrew Munoz also declined to clarify—beyond repeatedly referring me to ICE’s disciplinary guidelines—whether recruiting others for a hunger strike is an offense that merits investigation or solitary confinement.
At one point in March, Munoz acknowledged that the detention center was placed on lockdown because of the first hunger strike—”as a safety precaution.”
In May, detention authorities reportedly released hunger strikers from solitary confinement after the ACLU sued to stop what it called “retaliation.”
According to Alex West, the paralegal who provided us with a copy of the administrative detention order, there are at least 150 detainees now on hunger strike—roughly the same number as at the height of the previous strike in March. “It seems so soon to be singling anybody out,” West told me by phone, before entering the facility today to visit detainees. “I think people are really fed up with being retaliated against.”
West described a repressive atmosphere at the prison, with detainees engaging in “a lot of clandestine note passing and communication when people are on work duty” in order to organize the hunger strike.
“GEO is so ready to pounce on anything that looks organizing,” he says. “The guards are telling them, ‘You’re the only one. You’re the only one going to hunger strike.'”
Rios-Alegria was one of the longest-running participants in the hunger strike earlier this year and during that strike was placed in medical isolation and in administrative detention, according to West.
Why go without food for days on end and risk additional punitive measures inside the prison? Jose Moreno, a 26-year-old who participated in the first hunger strike but has since been released, told me the conditions—which Representative Adam Smith called “shocking”—are still the same. “What they’re demanding is still the same…We started the hunger strike because the food is terrible. Even the guards say they don’t want eat nothing [sic] of it.”
“So you’re always hungry,” Moreno explained by phone. He’ll be at a solidarity rally scheduled for tomorrow outside the jail, timed with a corresponding demonstrationoutside the White House. “As we know, GEO is a private corporation. And the main goal is make money no matter what. The way to make money is give us small portions of food, but also have this commissary inside. When you work, they deposit the money to your account in order to buy extra food.”
The Gates Foundation, by the way, is still invested, to the tune of $2.2 million, in GEO Group.