Today marks the sixth day of a hunger strike initiated by hundreds of immigrant detainees at a Tacoma, Washington detention facility run by for-profit private prison company GEO Group. A press release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) indicated that 750 of the center’s 1,300 detainees had refused meals on Friday, the first day of the strike. However, advocates for the strikers say this number was likely closer to 1,200.
The detainees assert that the purpose of the strike is to demand better conditions at the facility and an end to U.S. deportations as well as better food, increased pay for their work inside the facility, and better over-all treatment by the guards. Many of the strikers are also part of a work stoppage.
On Monday, the detainees added release on bond to their list of demands, saying, “Without a bond we spend months, even one-to-two years locked up without knowing what’s going to happen to us and our families and without being able to economically support our families, causing them to fall deeper into poverty.”
The latest reports coming out of the detention center reveal that those that continue to participate in the strike are being openly threatened with force feeding and denial of their asylum cases. Efforts are also being made to isolate strike leaders.
“They want the public to know that they’re people, and this is supposed to be a civil proceeding, and they’re being [in a way] neither civil or even human … they’re treated worse than animals,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, a representative with Latino Advocacy, a group supporting the hunger strikers.
The conditions that precipitated the strike - while infuriating - should come as no surprise to those familiar with the nature of GEO Group and the detention centers that they operate. The for-profit private prison company has an extensive history of subpar treatment of those being detained.
Despite the sorry state of affairs present in these detention centers and GEO Group’s complete disregard for basic human rights, the company continues to benefit from a little known government mandated quota that compels Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to consistently hold 34,000 men and women in detention. Such a quota does not exist in any other area of law enforcement and it remains at that level regardless of any fluctuations in the immigration rate. Politicians supporting the bed quota insist this number helps to ensure ICE’s top priority is keeping dangerous criminals off the streets, but in reality what this often means is that ICE will detain and deport for something as simple as a traffic violation in order to meet the requirement.
When this happens everyone loses: those being detained, their families, and the taxpayers being forced to fund the initiative.
No matter how ridiculous the detention bed quota might seem, GEO Group is laughing all the way to the bank. To date the company has been on the receiving end of millions in contracts from the federal government and has been able to run their detention centers largely without the interference of government regulation. What this all ends up amounting to is GEO Group receiving a license to continue on with “business as usual” while those directly affected by the bed quota must endure conditions that no one should ever be subject to.
What this comes down to is a matter of basic human rights and decency. GEO Group is a large corporation solely interested in protecting their bottom line, regardless of what it must infringe upon to do so. The strikers in Tacoma are courageously bringing national attention to conditions that exist in private detention centers. In doing so they also ignite important conversations about the kind of misguided policies - like the detention bed quota - that put many of the strikers at the disposal of GEO Group in the first place.