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Thursday, May 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Immigrants claim ICE retribution for hunger strike over poor conditions

“I don’t know why you’re starving yourself when ICE doesn’t care what happens to you,” one staffer told a hunger striker.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Eighty-two immigrants at two detention centers claim the centers’ staff and authorities are retaliating after they launched a hunger strike more than a week ago, according to a class action filed Thursday.

The immigrants say they have been subjected to ongoing harassment by the centers’ staff, including threats to throw them into solitary confinement, taunting, pressure to quit the strike, and cranking up the air conditioning in their dorms to uncomfortably cold temperatures. For the past couple of days, nearly all of California has been in the grip of a series of cold winter storms, with temperatures in Bakersfield, where the center is located, expected to dip to 48 degrees over the weekend.

Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center is a privately owned detention center operated by Florida-based GEO Group, Inc., and contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigration detainees. Golden State Annex, also owned by GEO, is located in nearby McFarland. GEO is a $1.14 billion company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The company maintains some of the largest detention centers in the country and has the largest number of beds in California.

The detainees launched their strike Feb. 17 to demand release from immigration custody and, barring that, improved conditions from ICE and GEO, according to the complaint.

“Since the hunger strike began, defendants have denied or restricted plaintiffs’ access to the law library, family visitation, church, yard time, and recreational activities,” the immigrants say in the complaint.

“Defendants’ retaliatory actions go far beyond the measures that would be necessary to accomplish legitimate institutional goals. Instead, defendants’ actions are intended to punish individuals for their peaceful protest and chill First Amendment-protected expression,” they say.

The plaintiffs also detail hostile attitudes on the part of facility staff and say that GEO staff are “selectively targeting plaintiffs with threats of discipline and displaying increasing contempt for them.”

According to the complaint, one staffer said, “I don’t know why you’re starving yourself when ICE doesn’t care what happens to you."

They say medical staff at Mesa Verde have refused to offer any care to the hunger strikers, despite ICE requirements to do so. If the strikers agree to leave the dorm where they are all currently housed, they’ve been told they could then have access to medical care, according to the complaint. Instead, however, hunger strikers fear they’ll be thrown into solitary confinement.

“Although plaintiffs have consented to waive their privacy rights and repeatedly requested that medical staff check their vital signs inside the dorm — something defendants at Mesa Verde have done during previous times of emergency, including the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic — defendants have instead conditionedpPlaintiffs’ access to medical care on their agreement to leave Dorm C,” the immigrants say.  “If a plaintiff does not agree to leave Dorm C for this purpose, they are marked as ‘refusing’ medical attention.”

This isn’t the first time that detainees at the centers have launched a hunger strike, said American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Minju Cho, who is representing the hunger strikers.

“To put the hunger strike in context, it didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Cho. “The current strike is an escalation of their attempts to request better conditions and humane treatment by ICE and Geo.”

In spring 2020, as the Covid pandemic was tearing through the country, dozens of Mesa Verde detainees began a hunger strike to protest inadequate safety conditions including lack of social distancing inside the crowded facility, as well as the lack of adequate cleaning supplies and sanitation. Throughout that period, ICE continued to send more people to the facility.

“From spring to summer 2020, dozens of individuals in Mesa Verde participated in five hunger strikes to call attention to their living conditions and ask for help,” plaintiffs say in the complaint. “In response, GEO staff retaliated against hunger strikers by, among other things, refusing to provide sanitation services in the dorms, withholding access to commissary (including to hygiene products), cutting phone and tablet access necessary to contact attorneys and loved ones, issuing mass disciplinary write-ups, confiscating hygiene supplies and medically necessary items (including prescription medication and walking canes), and revoking recreation time.”

Since the most recent strike began, there have no concessions on the part of ICE or GEO, said Cho.

“When [detainees] stopped working, they issued a number of demands and ICE and GEO have refused to negotiate or consider any of them,” she said.

Authorities at Mesa Verde did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The immigrants want a judge to declare the defendants' actions a violation of their First Amendment rights and to block future retaliation.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Government, National

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