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'Until We Drop': Immigrant Detainees on Hunger Strike Sue ICE, Detention Contractor for Alleged Retaliation

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People hold signs in support of ICE detainees and hunger strikers outside a building.
Vincenta Mayoral, 61, (center left) holds a sign in support of an ongoing detainee hunger strike outside the ICE field office in downtown San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2023. Last week, dozens of detainees launched the strike to protest what they said were inhumane conditions inside two ICE facilities in Kern County. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Update, 1:45 p.m. Friday: Five detainees on an ongoing hunger strike have sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a private prison company for alleged retaliation.

Several dozen men have refused meals for more than a week, protesting what they call “inhumane” living and working conditions at the two for-profit detention centers in Kern County where they are held.

The lawsuit (PDF) accuses ICE and its detention contractor The GEO Group of punishing hunger strikers by taking away their yard time, family visitation and other recreational activities, and by threatening them with solitary confinement.

GEO staffers have also made dormitory temperatures “uncomfortably cold” and tried to halt the detainees’ strike by leaving food on their beds for long periods of time, according to the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Thursday.

“We filed this lawsuit to protect the First Amendment rights of a group of people who have put their bodies on the line to protest the injustice of their detention,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“What they should draw is the attention of ICE and GEO to the horrendous conditions that they are detained under,” she added. “Instead, they were deprived for no reason except to punish them. That violates the Constitution.”

Spokespeople for ICE and GEO have denied the alleged retaliation, but declined to comment further on the lawsuit.

The five plaintiffs, who have been detained for lengths ranging from 10 months to more than two years, are asking the court to let them represent about 80 detainees who began the hunger strike on Feb. 17, in a class-action lawsuit.

Original story, 6 p.m. Thursday: More than 70 people locked up at two for-profit immigration detention centers in Kern County have refused to eat any meals for a week now, according to interviews with detainees and legal assistance organizations.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson confirmed that the hunger strike became official as of last Sunday evening, after detainees missed nine consecutive meals at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield and the nearby Golden State Annex in McFarland.

Hunger strikers said they will risk their lives as a last resort to pressure ICE officials to improve the “soul-crushing” working and living conditions at the facilities they’ve complained repeatedly about, to no avail. The detainees argue officials should also use their prosecutorial discretion to release those who don’t pose a safety threat or flight risk, but are jailed long-term while they fight deportation.

“We are not being heard. Our basic needs are not being met. So we are asking ICE to release us,” Oscar Rodriguez Picazo told KQED by phone from Mesa Verde, where he has been held for more than a year. The 36-year-old said he felt weak after skipping all meals since last Friday, but that he and others would continue the hunger strike “until we drop.”

Mesa Verde staffers have responded by taking away yard time and other recreational activities, as well as access to the law library, said Rodriguez Picazo and another hunger striker, Jose Hernandez. That has left protesters confined to their dorm 24/7, they said, except for trips to get medical checkups elsewhere in the facility.

“When we asked an officer, she told us, ‘You guys don’t get no visits, no rec, nothing of nothing, because you are on a hunger strike,’” said Rodriguez Picazo, who grew up in California’s Tulare County after emigrating from Mexico.

Medical personnel must carefully monitor the health, as well as food and water intake, of detainees on hunger strike, which ICE considers as such only after detainees have not eaten for 72 hours (PDF), according to the agency’s standards.

“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” said an agency spokesperson in a statement. “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care.”

The agency did not confirm how many detainees it considers on hunger strike at the two facilities. But commissary food items remain available for purchase by detainees, the spokesperson added, saying “ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers.”

The hunger strike represents an escalation of an ongoing, months-long work stoppage that detainees say they are waging to protest expired food, substandard medical care and overpriced commissary items that have pushed Rodriguez Picazo and others to work at the facilities for well below minimum wage.

Both Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex are overseen by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officials stationed in San Francisco. The agency contracts with the multinational prison company The GEO Group to operate those detention centers.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen supporters of the hunger strikers sang chants on megaphones and rallied outside ICE headquarters in downtown San Francisco, as dozens of people looked on while they waited in line to enter the agency offices, clutching paper forms.

“Enough is enough,” Esperanza Cuautle, an organizer with the nonprofit Pangea Legal Services, told the crowd on the street. Hunger strikers “are tired of the mistreatment, tired of the violation of their human rights.”

A Latina woman speaks into a megaphone with male and female protesters behind her.
Esperanza Cuautle, 30, an organizer with the Mesa Verde-Golden State Annex Hunger Strike Support Committee, speaks outside the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in downtown San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

The GEO Group pays detainees $1 per day for eight-hour shifts to scrub bathrooms, do laundry, work as barbers and do other tasks to maintain the facilities, per ICE guidelines that require compensation of “at least” $1 per day (PDF). Yet the company has engaged in “unlawful wage theft, unjust enrichment and forced labor” by coercing detainees to work, according to a lawsuit filed last summer.

Shortly after the suit was filed, more than a dozen California members of Congress urged top immigration authorities to investigate alleged “disturbing conditions and abusive and retaliatory behavior” toward detainees — including the use of solitary confinement — for participating in the peaceful labor strike at the two detention centers.

Senator Alex Padilla of California, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San José) led the request six months ago for ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate detention conditions at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex.

"I am hoping they can address the issues my colleagues and I highlighted in our September 2022 letter as soon as possible. I also hope the Administration has already begun the thorough investigation we requested,” said Lofgren, a senior member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security and Enforcement and a former immigration lawyer, in a statement.

“As disturbing reports of inhumane conditions, retaliation, and abusive behavior continue at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, I am renewing my call for a national phase-out of all private detention facility and jail contracts and for ICE to ensure humane detention standards,” she added.

KQED obtained a copy of ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson’s recent response to Lofgren, Padilla and the other California members of Congress.

“ICE was made aware of the allegations against the Geo Group,” said Johnson in his letter. “On July 7, 2022, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) submitted all documentation related to the allegations to the ICE Joint Intake Center for further review and investigation.”

DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which also received a complaint from nine detainees at the two facilities last September, is investigating reports “related to conditions of detention” at Golden State Annex, said Johnson.

A GEO Group spokesperson rejected allegations of retaliation against detainees or substandard detention conditions at the facilities. Both detention centers provide round-the-clock medical care, nutritional meals approved by a registered dietician and enhanced recreational amenities, the spokesperson said.

“As it relates to allegations regarding retaliation, GEO has a grievance process in place for use by persons housed at our facilities that is grounded in accessibility, confidentiality, fairness, objectivity and integrity, without fear of retaliation,” the GEO spokesperson said. “GEO has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to staff misconduct. Any alleged misconduct by GEO staff is promptly investigated and addressed.”

The company is also contesting fines of more than $104,000 issued last December by California workplace health and safety regulators for several violations, after worker detainees filed a complaint and Cal/OSHA inspectors visited Golden State Annex.

The nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants documented that at least 1,600 people went on hunger strike while held at 20 detention centers nationwide between May 2015 and early 2020. The incidence of such actions surged early on in the pandemic, with nearly 2,500 detainees waging COVID-related hunger strikes between March and July 2020, according to Detention Watch Network.

ICE officials and facility staffers have commonly responded with abuse and retaliation against people protesting by refusing to eat — a First Amendment-protected right, according to a report by the ACLU and Physicians for Human Rights. The groups analyzed hundreds of hunger strikes in immigration detention between 2013 and 2017. The authors of the report said those responses included use of force, solitary confinement and involuntary medical procedures.

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“Since the issuance of our report in 2021, ICE has not changed its policies or practices with respect to its treatment of hunger strikes. ICE’s failure to do so is of obvious concern,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project.

Immigration detention is legally classified as civil and should be nonpunitive, unlike in the criminal justice setting. ICE detains noncitizens to secure their presence for immigration proceedings.

While people convicted of aggravated felonies or other crimes are subject to “mandatory detention (PDF),” ICE officials may still decide to free them from custody with conditions after a case-by-case review, according to immigration attorneys. Often, the agency arrests immigrants with a criminal record after they have served sentences and are released from state prison or county jails.

ICE held more than 24,000 people in detention as of the end of January 2023, slightly more than a year ago, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data monitoring project at Syracuse University.

Nearly 190 men are held at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, according to ICE’s most recent detention statistics.

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