Wave of hunger strikes at immigrant prisons gains momentum

On October 28, 27 women at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas began refusing meals. Contrary to what its name may suggest, the 500 women inside Hutto are not voluntary residents. They have been placed in immigrant detention by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which has contracted with Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, a private prison corporation which owns and operates Hutto. Hutto is the sole women’s-only immigrant detention center in the country.

The women were protesting not only conditions inside the immigrant prison — from abusive treatment by guards to lack of medical care — but also the fact that they are being detained at all. In other words, they’re demanding their freedom. The majority of the women are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States. Here, however, they’ve been placed in immigrant detention as they await a decision about their fate. Some have been languishing behind bars for nearly two years.

“It gives me great pleasure to participate in this hunger strike. I can’t take any more of this punishment. I am dying from desperation, from this injustice [and] from this cruelty,” wrote Insis Maribel Zelaya Bernardez, a Honduran Garífuna woman currently imprisoned in Hutto.

Congressional appropriations covering the budget for ICE detention state “[t]hat funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.” The funding for these 34,000 beds — and the pressure to keep them filled — means that alternatives to detention, such as supervised release, are less likely to be utilized, locking people away from their families and communities as they await their day in (immigration) court. This includes the 500 women in the Hutto detention center as well as thousands in similar situations nationwide.

The call for freedom spread and, in less than a week, the number of women refusing food in a privately-run immigrant detention center has swelled, although no one is sure just how many women are now participating in the hunger strike. Their actions, accompanied by handwritten letters released by Grassroots Leadership, an organization working to end for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers, garnered media and activist attention.

The women’s mass hunger strike comes on the heels of two other hunger strikes in immigrant prisons. On October 14, 54 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan imprisoned in a detention center in El Paso, Texas, began refusing food and water. Less than a week later, in Louisiana’s Lasalle Detention Center, another 14 people began a solidarity hunger strike. In both places, the hunger strikers had already been deemed to have credible fear of being persecuted if they are returned to their home country, a first step in the process of seeking asylum. Although a 2010 ICE policy states that asylum seekers who pass their credible fear interview should be considered for parole, these men continue to be held in immigrant detention. Some had been held as long as two years. The El Paso hunger strike lasted about a week, and 11 of the hunger strikers were released.

The LaSalle hunger strike lasted nearly two weeks. Before they ended their strike, the LaSalle hunger strikers sent a message to the women at Hutto. In a message distributed by DRUM-South Asian Organizing Center, a social justice group mobilizing low-income South Asian immigrants, one LaSalle hunger striker wrote: “I am Foyez Ahmed, and I am saying freedom for the Hutto27! Our sisters, they have started a hunger strike and fighting hard. And we are support to them and they are support to us.”

It’s unclear whether the women in Hutto know about these messages of solidarity. But what is known is that, in Hutto — as in LaSalle — resistance has brought repercussions. TeleSur reported that two women have been transferred to a different immigrant prison and Zelaya Bernardez was placed in solitary confinement for three days, clearly measures intended to both break solidarity and scare other women into ending their strike. One of the women, Francisca Morales Macías, was able to call her daughter to let her know about the transfer. “She said they had her isolated, that she couldn’t do anything, she was only allowed to be in her room, she couldn’t talk to nobody,” her daughter told Fusion. Then, the call ended.

This is not the first time that women in immigrant prisons have gone on hunger strike to demand immediate release from horrific conditions. On New Year’s Eve in 1992, 40 women and 119 men imprisoned in Florida’s Krome Processing Center, one of the oldest and largest immigration processing centers (and the subject of repeated investigations of abuses), launched a hunger strike to demand their freedom. At the time, immigration policy dictated that Haitian refugees be indefinitely detained while their claims were investigated. In contrast, asylum-seekers from Cuba were allowed to go free. Eight days into the strike, 39 of the original 40 women were still refusing to eat despite the fact that the center’s administrators shut off the water coolers in the housing units and threatened to transfer women to local jails where they would be unable to receive family visits. But their actions had some effect. In the six months that followed, 88 of the 159 Haitian asylum-seekers were released, although the breakdown of genders was not publicized.

As the Hutto hunger strike enters its second week, ICE officials are denying that a hunger strike — or anyone refusing to eat — is taking place. The women remaining at Hutto report that they now have less access to phone calls and outdoor time. They also have told outside advocates that they are being given disciplinary reports for refusing to leave their dorms during meal times, that staff have been bringing food to the dorms and pressuring them to eat, and that guards have been following the women on hunger strike.

Resistance is spreading and people in other immigrant prisons are protesting conditions by refusing food. On October 30, at least 20 men at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California began a hunger strike to demand better medical and dental care, better food and respectful treatment.

While they too decry their conditions of confinement, the women at Hutto continue to refuse food until their one overarching demand is met — their immediate release.

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