On Tuesday, incarcerated people around the country launched a 19-day strike, protesting the dire conditions of their incarceration and releasing a list of demands calling for an end to forced labor, which they describe as “prison slavery.” Now, immigrants being detained in at least one facility in Washington state have joined them.
In a handwritten letter posted to the Facebook page of the group NWDC Resistance, which has been in touch with the detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, detainees announced their intention to go on strike, writing: “We are taking part in a hunger strike nationwide demanding change and closure of these detention centers.”
Explaining that they “are acting with solidarity for all those people who are being detained wrongfully,” including families who continue to remain separated in the wake of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, the letter writers also demand to be paid the minimum wage, stating that they are being “coerced into worker programs” and used as “slave labor” by the privately run detention center.
Maru Mora, a spokesperson for the group NWDC Resistance, told Newsweek that at least 60 are on hunger strike. More had planned to join, but many dropped out partly due to fears of retaliation, Mora said. According to Mora, staff at the facility have retaliated against detainees who have gone on hunger strike in the past, from segregating protesters to threatening to force-feed hunger strikes. “We have documented it again and again every time a hunger strike happens,” Mora said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has denied that detainees are on strike at the facility.
The nationwide prison strike was announced by members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group in South Carolina made up of incarcerated people who organizes for prisoners’ rights. As The Nation reported, the group “released a list of 10 demands that included improving the conditions of prisons immediately, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, an immediate end to racist gang-enhancement laws, ending death by incarceration, and rehabilitation services for all prisoners, including violent offenders.”
JLS announced the strike in response to a deadly riot on April 15 at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left seven prisoners dead.
In an interview published earlier this month, an unnamed JLS representative connected the detention of undocumented immigrants to the larger criminal justice system:
“As far as the connection with ICE and why we’re in solidarity, the biggest reason is because we understand those cages. And not only that, but it’s all the same system. And this is something that JLS has been promoting from day one. The entire system itself—the judicial system, the injustice system—it is a big ball of corruption, a big ball of crap [laughs]. Just being straightforward.
But we definitely feel for those humans that are in those cages, in those ICE detention cages. Before I was transferred over to [state prison] from [federal prison], I was actually caged up with a few of the guys who were being transported over to the federal [prison] from the ICE [facilities] and you could always see the dread in these men’s eyes, when they were being transferred over, and not only that, sometimes you can see the sadness, sometimes you can see—as I was explaining to some of the other comrades when we were talking about it—sometimes you can even see that some of these guys feel like they would even be facing death, when they go back home. So you can’t help but see that this is something that we should all be up-in-arms about, particularly when you know what’s going on.
But much more than anything, these are human rights violations, these facilities. And once more, I can’t overemphasize that they’re all the same. It’s all on the same chain, there’s no difference there. Outside of the fact that there are a few obvious differences, but the fundamental essence and nature of ICE, it’s no different from where I’m at now. It’s all slavery.”
As The Nation noted, prisoners have regularly gone on strike during the past five years, from a 2013 strike inside California’s prisons in which 30,000 people went on hunger strike, to a series of work stoppages in prisons around the country in 2016 that protested forced labor and low wages.
Immigrants in ICE custody have also regularly protested the conditions of their confinement. Earlier this month, 500 fathers and sons in ICE custody announced a hunger strike to protest of their ongoing detention and unjust conditions. “There are approximately 500 families here, and everyone is desperate to get out here,” Jorge, one of the striking fathers, said in an audio recording released by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.