“We had to do something:” Testimony of a hunger strike leader continues to inspire during national week of action to end immigrant detention

This is the second installment of the Quotes on the Quota blog series. Read the first installment here.

This week in communities across the country, advocates are rallying for a national week of action to end immigrant detention. The week of action pushes back against a national immigrant detention system that includes a quota requiring 34,000 detention beds to be maintained each day, leading to hundreds of thousands of families being separated each year by detention and deportation. But this isn’t the only quota driving the immigrant detention system. Some facilities also have “guaranteed minimums” that operate like local quotas.

A new report by Detention Watch Network finds that at many detention centers, including those run by for-profit prison corporations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) promises prison companies and other contractors that a certain number of immigrants will be locked up at any given time at their local facility. If they can’t fill the beds, ICE will still pay. This system creates perverse incentives for ICE to seek out, detain, and deport productive members of families and communities just to fill an arbitrary bed quota.

One of the facilities operating under such a quota, and the site of one of this week’s actions, is the GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Center, which has an 800-person local minimum. The center has been the site of multiple hunger strikes responding to grossly negligent medical care and other facility conditions, as well as family separation.

Earlier this year, I talked with Henry Taracena for this report on how private prisons profit from the immigrant detention quota. Henry was a leader of one of the hunger strikes within Northwest Detention Center and was detained there for 5 months. His experience continues to shed light on the inhumanity of the immigrant detention system and how people directly affected by it are fighting for their freedom.

Henry came to the U.S. from Tabasco, Mexico when he was 19, and has now lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. In 2009, he was unjustly deported because of a suspended license. He was detained for only a few days, without ever being told that he was eligible to apply for bond. The same year, he returned to the U.S. and continued working without incident.

In 2014, ICE raided his workplace looking for him, specifically. “They were going around looking for me as if I were a criminal,” Henry said. “Everyone at my work thought that I was a criminal… but in reality it was nothing.” Henry spent 5 months inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. “When I entered the detention center my life changed,” Henry said. “I never went back to being the same person I was before.”

Henry described the severely lacking conditions in the GEO-run detention center. While detained, he saw people with cancer and other serious illnesses not cared for properly, and people in pain who had to wait long stretches of time for medical care. “It really scared me,” he said. He also said that recreation was dangerous due to the nature of the space. “They have a small room that according to them is the recreation area… but it’s so small that someone was always hurting themselves… because it was a square with cement walls.”

The air conditioning was extremely cold, and smelled of chemicals, to the point that people developed sores on their skin from prolonged exposure. He also described unsanitary conditions full of dirt and mold. The facility was cleaned with only mild soap, and all the clothes were washed together interchangeably, causing illnesses to spread easily. Food was not nutritious, and given in small portions. “[People] entered healthy and came out sick,” Henry said.

The detained immigrants worked for $1 per day to run the facility. Henry said he didn’t mind working to occupy himself, but that the guards would treat them as if they were obligated to work all the time. “Inside there is a [guard] that shouts at the workers horribly,” he said. “They make you feel like you are a criminal, not a detained person. [The guards] think that they’re superior to us… they didn’t respect us as if we were people.” He also described how in the kitchen, where he worked, detainees were forced to sign many forms related to using knives and cooking equipment without adequate time to read what they were signing.

Knowing that he was unable to leave his room, or even see outside was the most difficult part of being detained for Henry, who suffers from PTSD. “There are no windows in the detention center. You’re enclosed,” he said. “I explained perfectly to the director of the detention center that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that I had to be in a place [with windows], and he told me no,” Henry said. “My psychologist was telling me that yes, I should be in a room where at least there were windows and I could see outside.” The majority of rooms were large with no windows that allowed people to see outside, which Henry said makes people become more depressed. “The detention centers aren’t set up well to care for people,” Henry said. “They need to be closed.”

While in detention, Henry helped to organize a hunger strike, the second at the facility, by sending messages from the kitchen to other “pods” of detainees who were meeting with religious groups from the outside. They sent them notes on slips of paper, asking if they would help support them in a hunger strike to expose the injustices that were occurring inside the facility. Those who worked in the kitchen or laundry room sent notes to other leaders, arranging a time to meet in the library to plan their demands and what action they would take. For three days, Henry said around 900 detainees refused to eat, himself among them. “I chose to [participate in the hunger strike] because [I saw] other people suffering, people not receiving medical care, minors arriving at the detention center without anyone having checked that they’re under age… there were many calamities… we had to do something. One person by himself can’t do anything but together we can do a great deal.”

After the third day of the hunger strike, the ICE field office director met with some of the detainees to ask what they wanted. They described the problems with conditions at the facility, the high bonds ($7,500 was common), and that people without criminal records were being placed in detention. They promised changes, but Henry reflected that they should have gotten them in writing because “they ignored us and many things have not changed.”

After being released from detention, Henry continued to communicate with leaders inside the detention center to organize a third hunger strike at the facility. He helped coordinate with other advocates to amplify the voices of the people inside the facility by protesting outside, and connecting with advocates for hunger strikers at GEO immigrant detention facilities in the U.K. “The treatment of undocumented people is unjust,” Henry said. “We did the hunger strike… principally because they are breaking up families.”

Thinking of the children separated from one or both of their parents, and the trauma it causes them gives him strength to continue fighting for meaningful reform to the immigration system. “Not only in detention centers, but in the entire U.S. the system is bad,” Henry said. “Private prisons are causing harm.”

Henry now lives with his brother near Seattle and has received a human rights award for his continued advocacy for immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center.