Photo courtesy of Tsuru for Solidarity.

On February 1, 85 people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA, launched a Hunger Strike to protest unbearable living conditions. Almost immediately, guards from ICE and GEO Group (the private, for-profit corporation running NWDC) donned riot gear and mounted a militarized response, using pepper spray and smoke grenades in the confined, crowded quarters of the detention pod units. Several units were placed on lockdown, Hunger Strike leaders were thrown into Solitary Confinement, and two of the detained immigrants were taken to the hospital.

People in other pods — and not yet involved in the Hunger Strike — were also affected by the gas that spread into the halls and through the ventilation ducts. One man collapsed with difficulty breathing, and it took 15 minutes for a medical response to reach him. On Thursday, more people joined the Hunger Strike in response to the heavy-handed, violent tactics used by ICE and GEO, and by Friday, over 100 people had joined the Strike. 

Clearly, the violent, militarized response is only exacerbating an already volatile situation and driving even more people to resist. 

ICE and GEO are responsible for the conditions that led to this mass protest. ICE and GEO are responsible for the escalated and unwarranted violent response. ICE and GEO are also responsible for any harm that comes to the people they are charged with supervising, both those in detention and those on their staff. 

Swift action must be taken to preserve the health and safety of everyone inside the Northwest Detention Center. 

Three steps immediately come to mind:

  1. Stop the Harm – Stop the pepper spray and the smoke. Stop the beatings. End the general lockdowns. Release Hunger Strike leaders from Solitary Confinement. Take off the Riot Gear. Resume recreation yard time so people can see the sky and breathe fresh air. Unblock communications so people can call their families and talk to their lawyers. Provide proper medical care to all in need. End the violent response to a peaceful Hunger Strike immediately. 
  2. Meet the Demands – The Hunger Strikers have presented a list of 14 demands to GEO Group and ICE. None of these demands are radical, partisan, or a threat to the security and stability of the detention center. They include demands for: edible, nutritious food; regularly scheduled mealtimes; clean, dry clothes to wear; haircuts more than once a month; proper sanitation of bathrooms, showers, and common areas; protection from COVID; bed linen changes at least once a month; access to adequate and timely medical care when ill; jobs that pay minimum wage (as required by Washington state law); and no retaliation for making these demands. Taken as a whole, their demands are simply a call to respect their humanity. 
  3. Shutdown NWDC – The terrible conditions that prompted the mass Hunger Strike are nothing new. The first Hunger Strike in 2014 was prompted by the very same issues – and little has changed over the last 9 years. Neither the city, county, or state governments have been able to impact the conditions established by GEO Group and ICE. Pleas to our members of Congress, Federal officials, and the Courts have failed to bring any real relief. Those detained inside NWDC will not tolerate these subhuman conditions any longer — and neither should we. The only lasting solution is to Shutdown NWDC and Free Them All.

The Hunger Strikers are asking that concerned people contact ICE Seattle Field Director Drew Bostock to express these political demands, either by emailing him at [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected] or calling him at 253-779-6000 or 206-835-0650.

La Resistencia has been rallying every day outside Northwest Detention Center since the beginning of the strike in solidarity with the hunger strikers and all detainees. 

Stanley Shikuma is a member of the Seattle Chapter Japanese American Citizens League; Tsuru for Solidarity; and La Resistencia.

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