Hungry for Justice: Prisoner Hunger Strike at the Tacoma Immigrant Detention Center


By Alec

1,200 inmates at the Northwest Detention Center outside of Tacoma, WA went on hunger strike March 7, 2014. The Northwest Detention Center is a corporate-owned prison for people facing deportation. The strikers demanded better food, wages higher than one dollar a day, better treatment and medical care, an end to exorbitant prices in the commissary and fundamental fairness and justice. The strikers are also protesting the 2 million people deported so far under the Obama administration with 1300 people being deported every day. Despite his outreach to the Latino community and promises to the contrary, Obama has deported more immigrants than any president in US history.

The inmates at the Northwest Detention center are fed boiled potatoes and beans for every meal, every day. The prison staff treat them as less than human with constant harassment, and intimidation. Detainees are referred to by numbers, not their names. Prisoners have limited or no access to medical care. One incarcerated man who suffered from a severe nosebleed was made to wait twenty-four hours to see a doctor and almost died choking on his own blood.

Rather than respond to the strikers’ demands, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO group have retaliated against the hunger strike. The day after the strike began, the guards’ uniforms changed to riot gear and they began recording the names and numbers of prisoners who were striking. The guards told the strikers that nobody outside cared that they were striking and that they would be denied asylum and deported because of their actions. The guards have also been arbitrarily transferring prisoners to other sections of the prison. The confusion that results from this displacement is a form of psychological torture. Strikers are being isolated from their families and comrades and threatened with force-feeding.

The hunger strike is believed to have been inspired by a February 24 demonstration outside the prison in which protesters blocked vans from leaving the facility. The prisoners inside the vans told other prisoners that people on the outside were putting their bodies on the line to help them. The prisoners wanted to respond to this solidarity action with their own act of resistance. There have been hunger strikes before at this facility that failed because of lack of support from the outside. This time, activists inside and outside the prison have coordinated their efforts, brewing a perfect storm for the GEO group and ICE. The Northwest Detention Center hunger strike is only the latest protest action against deportation in a string of actions that have been taking place for years, growing in number and volume as well as boldness. People are paying attention.

The United States is in the midst of the largest prison build-up in history. There are more black and Latino people in prison now than there were slaves in the South before the Civil War. America has the most prisons of any nation in the world. Many of these prisons are for-profit, meaning they are run by corporations that receive taxpayer money for every person that they lock up. Around 1.6 million people are in state and federal prisons (as of the U.S. census in 2010), and every able-bodied one of them is required to work. Prison laborers are paid between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour for manufacturing clothing, solar panels, weapons, etc. Although it is illegal for Federal Prison Industries (also called “Unicor”) to sell prisoner-made goods to consumers, the government purchases these goods, replacing private sector companies. The result is the elimination of manufacturing jobs, decreased wages, and subsequent damage to the economy. NASA has contracted prisoners at San Quentin to make satellite parts for pennies an hour – a job once reserved for unionized engineers. Soon, the products of prison labor will be floating between us and the stars.

In 2007, a piece of legislation called the “bed mandate” was put into place, requiring ICE to fill 34,000 detention center beds in the US with immigrant prisoners at all times in order to receive federal funds. There is no way to negotiate around this number — 34,000 prison beds are filled by immigrants and the DHS and ICE and get paid.

ICE is focused on locking up undocumented immigrants and they do not care which ones as long as they meet their quota. While some undocumented immigrants are arrested and forced into deportation for breaking the law, many of those detained at the Northwest Detention Center are babysitters, farmers, landscapers, foragers of mushrooms, and shellfish harvesters at Washington’s oyster and clam farms. ICE patrols neighborhoods, forests where immigrants forage, and Department of Fish and Wildlife offices where permits for fishing and foraging are obtained. They work in conjunction with the police, setting up roadblocks that appear to be DUI checkpoints, but are used by ICE to check immigration documentation.

The Secure Communities Act, a piece of legislation encouraging ICE cooperation with local law enforcement, is a factor supporting the astronomical trend of deportation. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) surveyed the Latino communities in five counties in different states across the US with large Latino populations. Their research showed that since the passage of the Secure Communities Act, 62% of Latinos report that officers stop them without good reason or cause. There is also an increased feeling of isolation and a decreased feeling of safety in the Latino community. The study found that 38% of Latinos are afraid to leave their homes.

Corporations such as the GEO group, which runs the Northwest Detention Center, and the Corrections Corporation of America, receive $165 per night per immigrant that is detained. ICE in cooperation with local law enforcement detains 1,300 immigrants per day. The money that is going into the pockets of these prison corporations is coming out of the taxpayers’ wallets. The Latino community is being targeted more than any other community in this regard, but as ICE becomes more desperate for deportations we may see European, Asian, African and Caribbean immigrants being detained and deported in large numbers.

Over 200 demonstrators rallied outside of the Northwest Detention Center on March 11, 2014. They yelled, sang and banged pots and pans to express their solidarity with the strikers inside, who were denying themselves food to bring immigrant detainees more attention and better treatment. A national day of action took place April 5.

The historic act of resistance at NWDC and other hunger strikes by prisoners against their captors at Guantanamo Bay, Pelican Bay in California, and in Palestine, demonstrates that people will not give up their dignity even in the darkest corners of the world. Prisoners have the strength to use non-violence to highlight the brutality of the system. Rebellions like these are becoming more common as are actions expressed in solidarity with them outside the walls. As the prison build-up continues, we see greater resistance to the conditions of incarceration.

The strikers in the Northwest Detention Center have expressed that they are not striking as individuals but as one group together. They understand that their actions may not save them from deportation or their inhumane treatment. They are refusing to eat because they do not want anyone else to have to go through what they are going through.

You can donate for prisoners’ telephone and commissary accounts, transportation funds for prisoners’ families, litigation fees and organizing expenses at