Hundreds stand in solidarity with detainee hunger strikers

Family of detainee hold signs outside NW Detention Center Saturday

Over 200 activists, family members of former and current immigration detainees and concerned citizens braved the elements Saturday afternoon to stand in solidarity with those being held inside the Northwest Detention Center, and at similar facilities around the nation.

Organized by the activist group #Not1More Deportation, the march and rally in Tacoma coincided with events around the country aimed at putting a stop to deportations.

The Tacoma facility, which is operated by private prison contractor The GEO group, holds up to 1,575 immigration detainees for U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) on any given day.

Before the protest kicked off, immigration attorney and University of Washington School of Law Professor Angélica Cházaro led a tour of the area around the facility, pointing out the buses & vans used to transport detainees to the airport for deportation.

Protestors hold up wall of photos of people held at and deported from the Northwest Detention Center. (Photo by Lael Henterly)
Protestors hold up wall of photos of people held at and deported from the Northwest Detention Center. (Photo by Lael Henterly)

“Ninety percent of the immigrants held here navigate the process without an attorney,” Cházaro told the group, explaining that detainees at Northwest Detention Center don’t get the same constitutional right to free legal representation granted in the criminal court system.

More than seven hundred detainees began a hunger strike March 7, in an effort to secure better wages and more reasonable commissary prices. Those held at the facility currently earn just one dollar for a day’s work, only to be charged $9 for a miniature bottle of shampoo from the prison commissary. And if detainees want to call someone on the outside? They’ll pay $15 for a few crackly minutes of conversation.

Of course, none of this is new — it’s been going on since the facility opened in 2004. What is new is the attention the issue is getting because of the hunger strike, and the momentum building on both sides of the prison walls.

“I heard people outside shouting, ‘you are not alone, you are not alone,’” Jose Moreno, a recently released detainee who participated in the original strike, told the crowd Saturday.

“I went back inside… we had been complaining about everything we had been going through to each other and after seeing what we saw we realized we had support outside. We realized we are the ones with the greatest need, we are the ones who are oppressed. We were were moved by our own oppression to join the struggle that was happening outside and started planning for a hunger strike to start on March 7th.”

Jose Moreno speaks about his experience during the hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center. (Photo by Lael Henterly)
Jose Moreno speaks about his experience during the hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center. (Photo by Lael Henterly)

Moreno spoke of the difficulty of organizing the strike. Word spread within the confines of the facility — from cell block to cell block — through whispers, notes and messages passed on meal trays.

Once the strike was underway, prison officials donned black outfits and riot gear, Moreno said.

On March 27, guards invited those with grievances about commissary prices to negotiate, but instead of providing a forum for redress, placed them in solitary confinement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services caught wind of this, filing suit on behalf of the detainees and their free speech rights. Twenty people have since been returned to the general population, with five remaining isolated.

That was still five too many for the protestors outside the detention center on Saturday.

“As a high school teacher, I see too many families separated by this place,” Anne Gregory said as she drew up a handmade sign for the rally.

As of Monday the GEO Group has not responded to requests for comment about the protest.

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