A Hunger Strike in Washington is Shining a Light on the Shady Practices of Private Prisons

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A Hunger Strike in Washington is Shining a Light on the Shady Practices of Private Prisons

Surprising nobody, private prisons are the canker sore that keeps on giving. And receiving. The current wave of utterly justified scorn is coming from the west. A hunger strike is in its third day in Tacoma, Washington, at a for-profit Immigration and Customs Enforcement Jail. It’s the second such hunger strike in three years against GEO Group, America’s second-largest private prison company, which runs the lockup. According to Sam Knight at the District Sentinel:

More than 750 people are participating, according to supporters holding a demonstration at noon on Wednesday, in front of the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). The rally is being held, in part, to see if the hunger strike will continue. Inmates began refusing meals at lunchtime on Monday, in protest over conditions at the privately-run prison. Specifically, they want speedier hearings, improved food and healthcare access, and lower prices at the prison’s store.

According to Sara Bernard at Seattle Weekly, on Monday the total amount of strikers was at 275. That number has grown, and will likely grow.

The strikes were also started, according to Knight, because of working conditions at the NWDC. The prisoners are paid about one dollar a day for various jobs. Even there, allegedly, the detention center has taken their wages from them; replacing the dollar with a bag of potato chips.

According to the Latino Rebels Web site, the NWDC is the largest single ICE-detention facility on the West Coast. About fifteen-hundred immigrants in the middle of civil deportation are held there.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with the GEO Group, a multinational private prison corporations, to run the facility, and hunger strikers aimed their demands at both the federal government and the private contractor. The NWDC has been a frequent target of immigrant activists since a March 2014 hunger strike involving 1200 detainees first brought international notoriety to the immigration prison.

An associated protest group, NWDC Resistance, which the Seattle Times describes as a “group of immigration and Latino activists,” has continued to rally outside the prison, in solidarity with the prisoners. The group frequently posts on Facebook. Recently, Resistance posted the hunger-strikers’ list of demands, which began with the sentence (originally in Spanish):

“The motive that we write this is to ask you by favor that we all participate united, and on Monday April 10, 2017, from noon and on we will not eat, or use the phones, neither will we bunk up on the late night count or lights out.”

The objectives, the strikers said—in a handwritten note—were to change the food, lower the cost of commissary food, better hygiene (clothes), more rec time, to bring school and other programs into the structure, better medical attention, increased wages for manual labor and faster court proceedings.


These demands echo those made during the last NWDC strike, back in 2014, which endured for fifty-six days and brought national awareness to the cause—and galvanized the Resistance into an active political force.

Mike Carter, writing for the Times, said that federal immigration officials were preparing to “invoke a hunger-strike protocol that could result in forced treatment of inmates who continue to refuse nourishment.” The last time the NWDC strikers tried to stop eating, the detention center officials “put hunger strikers in solitary confinement,” Bernard wrote.

Per the Weekly, the plan is to refuse food for at least three days, because otherwise

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “won’t recognize it as a hunger strike until they last 72 hours,” says Maru Mora Villalpando, one of the lead organizers of NWDC Resistance, a grassroots advocacy group that grew out of the 2014 hunger strikes.

You will be surprised to learn, I am sure, that the GEO group has a history of conflict with both its “guests” and its own employees. In October 2016, Lael Henterly, writing for the Seattle Globalist, documented a protest of the GEO Group by workers there.

Mena [an attorney] said the corrections workers described the action as an “informational strike” and said that they were frustrated by low wages, inadequate training, mandatory overtime and a lack of sick days. The NWDC guards unionized in January, five years into a pay-freeze, and have received push-back from the company in recent months, Mena said.

This February, according to Betsy Woodruff at the Daily Beast, detainees of a GEO Group prison in Colorado sued the company. Per Woodruff:

The plaintiffs allege that the GEO Group forced detainees to work for extremely low wages or for no wages at all, and in some cases threatened detainees with solitary confinement as punishment if they refused to work. The center holds undocumented immigrants facing deportation.

According to the Globalist, “The 800,000 people employed in U.S. lockup facilities are at heightened risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide.” Ansel Herz, in an article for The Stranger castigated the Gates Foundation for its financial investments in GEO Group, noted that of the “immigrant detainees” many of them had “no or modest criminal records.”


Immigration has been a favored hobgoblin of the Trump coalition since their inception. What did not begin with Trump is the national relish for locking away foreigners. Private prison, particularly for immigrant detainees, soared under the Obama Administration, only to be scaled back near the end of the President’s second term, under public pressure.

In February, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department declared they would keep private prisons in play for detaining undocumented immigrants. Donald Cohen, director of the advocacy group In The Public Interest, released a statement saying he was unsurprised by Trump’s decision.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he said, was a private prison enthusiast. “As Alabama’s attorney general, Sessions green lighted their use in the state, and shortly after the Obama Justice Department’s original announcement, GEO Group—the country’s second largest private prison company—hired two former Sessions aides as lobbyists.” Trump’s presidency would be a golden age of private prisons.

According to Ana Sofia Knauf in an April 13 feature published in The Stranger, ICE does not view the action in its prison as a hunger strike:

Virginia C. Kice said the department is not recognizing the NWDC detainee’s movement as such. Kice says some self-identified hunger strikers are still eating food purchased at the commissary. “We don’t have a hunger strike,” she said. “We have people refusing meals.”

In their letter, the striking detainees at NWDC concluded by saying: “Because it is not just for them to treat out the way they want without them respecting our rights! And if we speak up we don’t speak up we’ll always be the same.”