The latest hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center was called to a halt last Saturday after two mysterious officials from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) approached detainees and told them their “voices had been heard.”
The hunger strikers chief complaints were about bad food, substandard medical care, high commissary prices and lack of access to fair and timely court hearings.
According to Maru Mora-Villalpando, the CEO of Latino Advocacy and a lifeline for many NWDC detainees, at least 150 prisoners at the facility began to refuse food last Wednesday, continuing until Saturday morning. ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz acknowledged that some detainees refused their food but put the number of returned trays at no more than 90.
The recent strike is just the latest installment in a series of hunger strikes at the facility. A strike that began March 7 and at one point boasted over 1,000 participants was called to an official end May 1 after garnering global media attention.
Conditions apparently haven’t changed much at the facility since then. However Munoz explained in an email that commissary prices have been lowered, items have been added and changes have been made to the menu since the spring strike.
Detainee Cipriano Rios-Alegria, one of the spring hunger strike participants, was placed in isolation July 31 “pending investigation for trying to recruit other detainees for hunger strike,” according to an internal Administrative Detention Order form furnished to the Seattle Globalist by Alex West, a legal advocate for Colectiva.
Placing a detainee in isolation for participating in a hunger strike, a constitutionally protected right, is in direct violation of the agreement reached between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Columbia Legal Services and the NWDC earlier this year, during the previous hunger strike.
“ICE received numerous complaints from detainees who had no interest in participating, but were being pressured to do so,” explained Munoz, noting that some diabetic detainees had to be transferred for their own dietary protection. “Under ICE’s detention standards, engaging in or inciting a group demonstration is a prohibited act.”
After media reports pointed out this abuse of civil liberties, Rios-Alegria was released from isolation.
“The ACLU is standing by in case there is any further retaliation in violation of the previous agreement,” wrote West in an email.
Right now it isn’t entirely clear who exactly is negotiating and what is on the table.
“NWDC G5 Pod called Saturday morning,” said Mora-Villalpando. “They said a ‘Director Wilson’ met with two of them and told them that their voice was heard, that they should stop and they would work on improving conditions. Both of them were given the same agreement as to what conditions they will improve.”
The details get a bit fuzzy beyond that. It isn’t entirely clear who the “Director Wilson” who made the promise is, and no specific date has been set for the rollout of any changes.
“We haven’t seen any paperwork yet, just a promise, so we’re looking for something to solidify that,” said West.
While Munoz would not explicitly state who met with detainees and convinced them to end their hunger strike Saturday, he did imply that at least one of the officials was affiliated with ICE.
“ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of those in our custody. ICE managers and detention center staff communicate with detainees regularly during visits to the facility’s pods,” wrote Munoz.
“These visits afford the facility staff an opportunity to get direct feedback from detainees regarding any issues or concerns.”
A group of 44 detainees also penned a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) outlining their overarching demands including the following:
“NO MORE FAMILY SEPARATIONS. WE WANT FAIR COURT HEARINGS AND THE PRESIDENT TO LISTEN TO OUR COMMUNITY”
(You can watch a video of the full letter being read at an August 2nd demonstration here).
As you might imagine, most of those issues are beyond the scope of problems GEO Group and ICE actually have the authority to negotiate on.
“Many of the matters raised by detainees, such as immigration law reform or immigration court case issues, are outside the scope of the detention center staff’s control,” explained Munoz.
They’d have to come at the hands of Congress or the President. Indeed it seems likely that the latest hunger strike was timed to coincide with the last few days of the congressional session before their summer recess — when there was a slim chance they might actually take action on an immigration reform bill.
That of course didn’t happen. But the spring hunger strike did catch the attention of local Congressman Adam Smith, who introduced a bill mandating improved conditions in detention centers. The bill has picked up some cosponsors, but hasn’t made it to a vote and looks to be a non-starter in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The hunger strike comes as GEO Group looks to renew their contract to operate the facility in the coming months. The existing contract expires in October, and a new open-bid contract was expected to post by the end of July — but there is still no sign of it on fbo.gov and Munoz says he does not know when it will be unveiled.
The company announced their 2nd quarter earnings this week, coming in above projections.
“We continue to create value for shareholders,” said CEO George Zoley in a quarterly earnings conference call Wednesday morning. “We have improved occupancy across our real estate portfolio, particularly at the federal level.”
Creating value for GEO Group’s shareholders tends to be at odds with providing comfortable accommodations for detainees — the less GEO spends providing the detention services the government pays them for, the more profit they make. But if the government was asking for the right things in it’s contracts, GEO could easily provide better conditions.
A GEO Group facility in Australia expected to open in 2017 will offer an “an unprecedented level of in-prison rehabilitation and community reentry services,” according to John Hurley, Senior Vice President of GEO Corrections and Detention.
Hurley said the facility will showcase the full GEO Group Continuum of Care, to include “community reentry services, education, training, employment, assistance, housing, substance abuse and mental health counseling.”
The NWDC does not offer any of these things because they are not stipulated in GEO Group’s current contract with ICE. As a publicly traded company, GEO’s first responsibility is to their shareholders who benefit when costs are kept low.
So will the ongoing problems at the facility hurt GEO Groups chances of securing the contract? They certainly could.
“Anything that may compromise the security or welfare of the detainees is of concern to ICE,” wrote Munoz in an email Wednesday.
An optimist might imagine fruitful negotiations between the detainees and ICE leading to a new contract that requires GEO Group to provide more of those cadillac options for services at the NWDC.
But with both the negotiations and the supposedly public contract renewal process shrouded in secrecy, it’s anyone’s guess if or how that could actually happen.