New Hunger Strike Draws Attention to Health Conditions at Northwest Detention Center

by Alex Garland (words and photos)

At the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), a privately-operated immigration prison owned by GEOGroup, in Tacoma, a protest is growing exponentially. Over the weekend, nearly 220 detainees joined 30 fellow detainees already involved in a hunger strike to protest living conditions and concerns over the COVID-19 virus, especially in cramped, unhygienic conditions.

The “petri -dish”—as a passing worker called the facility—has the capacity to hold 1,575 people in conditions the Detention Watch Network called “a public health risk.” According to a VICE article over 3,000 medical professionals signed an open letter to ICE “it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads throughout jails, detention centers and surrounding communities.”

According to the press release, a detainee inside the NWDC spoke with Maru Mora-Villalpando of La Resistancia, saying, “We want to be released because in here there’s no protection from the virus[…] We are on hunger strike because we know it’s not true that we will receive medical care here in NWDC.”

A demonstrator holds a sign during a March 30 protest in solidarity with those incarcerated at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA.

The demands of the hunger strikers are 1) Provide humanitarian temporary visas for those inside; 2) Reunite those who have been detained with their families; 3) Stop all deportation and immigration proceedings until the pandemic has concluded.

“For weeks we have been ringing the alarm bell to release people now,” said Mora-Villalpando. “Detention centers are a hotbed of infection. ICE’s shameful record of medical negligence, poor sanitation that only worsens in times of crisis, and demonstrated inability to properly respond to past infectious disease outbreaks creates a ticking time bomb over concerns of a COVID-19 outbreak in immigration detention.”

While the hunger strike in the detention center grew, activists outside rallied in support. A caravan protest isn’t a new concept, but in the age of Covid-19, every tactic in the activist playbook is being used to share their messages of solidarity and hope. On March 30, more than 20 cars, trucks, and minivans gathered on J Street outside the NWDC to honk their horns and wave signs in solidarity with those inside on hunger strike. “No Estan Solos” read several signs, reminding those locked away that they are not forgotten.

Slogan draped on the lawn outside the Northwest Detention Center during a March 30 rally in solidarity with hunger strikers.

La Resistencia was joined by affinity groups including Tsuru for Solidarity and Never Again Seattle to demand an end to detention centers. Greta Treistman, a member of Never Again Seattle, shared why she’s participating in the caravan rally today: “Many Jews have whole sections of our family trees that are missing due to conditions that included detention centers like the one we are outside of today. We have seen this before and won’t let it happen again. We demand that all those detained be released and the NWDC be shut down.”

Demonstrators holds signs at a March 30 rally in solidarity with those incarcerated at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA.

The strike, which is expected to go on until the demands are met, is already facing backlash from ICE: according to a La Resistencia press release, detainees report commissary being confiscated, [electronic] tablets denied, and being forced to sign deportation orders. “People must be released now,” said Stanley Shikuma of Tsuru for Solidarity.

“We stand in solidarity with hunger strikers who are bravely protesting their incarceration and the complete lack of transparency by ICE under a global pandemic.”

Alex Garland is a Seattle based photo journalist covering local social movements. 

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