Immigrants on Hunger Strike at For-Profit Prison


Hundreds of undocumented immigrants are on hunger strike to protest the conditions and extremely low wages at the for-profit Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. We speak with Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance and the group Mijente, and Alexis Erickson, the partner of hunger striker Cristian Lopez. Cristian was part of the hunger strike in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, before he was transferred to a jail in New Mexico, where he is continuing the strike. He’s facing deportation to Mexico. Alexis and Cristian have three U.S.-born children.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Washington state, where hundreds of undocumented immigrants are on hunger strike to protest the conditions and extremely low wages at the for-profit immigrant prison, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. On Thursday morning, activists say women imprisoned within the prison joined the strike, which now includes more than 700 immigrants, or about half the population of the for-profit prison.

Hunger strikers are demanding better food, hygiene, medical care within the prison, which is owned by the major private prison corporation GEO Group. Organizers say prisoners have also launched work stoppages to protest the fact they’re paid only a dollar a day to cook, to clean, to do laundry necessary to keep the prison running. GEO Group is facing a class-action lawsuit arguing the company violates federal anti-slavery laws at its Aurora, Colorado, prison, where it also pays only a dollar a day. This is an audio recording of hunger striker Johnathan Rodriguez Guzman. Listen closely.

JOHNATHAN RODRIGUEZ GUZMAN: My name is Johnathan Rodriguez Guzman. And I’m just letting the people to know that I’m doing a hunger strike, just not for me, but for everybody out there and the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The strike began on Monday at noon with more than 100 prisoners refusing to eat lunch. Since then, activists have been supporting the hunger strikers with an ongoing 24-hour encampment outside the Tacoma jail.

The strikes come as Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, this week, where he met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and vowed a major crackdown, calling immigration, quote, “an attack on our national security.” Immigration advocates say the Trump administration’s crackdown against immigration and immigrants living within the United States has led to more immigrants being imprisoned at jails, including at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported, in its scramble to find new places to house immigrants arrested in ICE raids, the Trump administration is trying to curtail protections for immigrants being held in county jails, including doing away with a requirement that immigrants have access to translation services.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Maru Mora Villalpando is an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance and the group Mijente. And Alexis Erickson is the partner of hunger striker Cristian Lopez. Cristian was part of the hunger strike in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, before he was transferred to a jail in New Mexico, where he’s continuing the strike. He’s facing deportation to Mexico.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let us begin right now with Maru Mora Villalpando. Tell us exactly what you understand is happening in Tacoma.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Well, we have now hundreds of people deciding to stop eating since Monday at noon. We had word from people in detention over the weekend that they were getting ready to do this hunger strike. We began with a few numbers. I mean, if you think about the maximum capacity there, 1,575, and we know that it’s over capacity, so when we heard that about a hundred people, and maybe more than that, were getting ready to strike, we were there, ensuring that we will support that.

And throughout the week, we saw numbers increasing and increasing, more and more people start joining. Yesterday morning, we heard from the women’s section saying that they were ready to also join the strike. And we heard from one of the areas that [inaudible] contact from the beginning, that they were being threatened with being transferred to a county jail in Oregon, and therefore they decided to stop. But other parts continue joining. And so, now we believe we have about 700 people, maybe more than that. It’s difficult sometimes to get communications from the inside. Even in one part, people decided to add a work stoppage, acknowledging that they are the backbone of the detention center. They also called for a boycott of the commissary and the telephones, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Erickson, tell us about Cristian, Cristian Lopez, your partner, who is on hunger strike and has been transferred now from the GEO prison to New Mexico.

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Well, he was transferred about three days ago. On his way over there, he was treated wrong. He asked one guard, that was a ICE guard that was on the bus with him, if he speaks Spanish. They were just very rude to him, because he was asking for another guy that spoke Spanish only. When they got there, they said that they lost a lot of people’s property, which was not true. He ended up getting his property a couple of hours later, but he had to fight just to get his bags. They’ve just all been treated very wrong. And they said that there is a couple people where he is that are still doing the hunger strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen changes in the prison? How long has Cristian Lopez been held there? And have you seen changes since the Trump administration took over?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: He was put in Oregon in February. He did his 20 days he had to do. He was still stuck for another month before he even got switched to Tacoma. When he got switched to Tacoma, he got off the bus the first time, and they put him right back on. He ended up going back to Oregon again, because they just said, “Your court date’s revoked.” So he had to come back again. He came back for his court date on April 6th. And he finally got deported two days ago. And he was treated really bad in the Tacoma facility.

AMY GOODMAN: You have how many children together? Are they American citizens?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Three, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are they?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: I have a 7-year-old. I have a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru Mora Villalpando, can you talk about the fact that this is a for-profit prison and what difference you think this makes? They’re being sued under slavery—anti-slavery laws in Aurora, in a jail there. What about in Tacoma?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yeah, we know this is one of the largest detention centers in the West Coast and the nation. They make a lot of money out of encaging our families in there—$165, I believe, per day per person. And the jobs that people are getting paid to do inside for a dollar a day is not everything that they do inside. We have reports that people are asked to paint the walls or wash the floors in exchange for having a piece of chicken or a piece of candy, and sometimes not even that. They’re just promised that, and that doesn’t happen. We also have seen a lot of reports that the food is always bad, but sometimes it’s not only that, it’s the fact that the portions are getting smaller. And when people complain about that, GEO guards say, “Well, there’s just too many of you. What do you want us to do?”

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the conversation after the show and post it at democracynow.org. We’re speaking with Maru Mora Villalpando with Northwest Detention Center Resistance and the group Mijente, and Alexis Erickson, whose partner is hunger striker Cristian Lopez. As a result, he was sent to a New Mexico jail from Tacoma.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation about what’s happening in Washington state, where hundreds of undocumented immigrants are on hunger strike to protest the conditions and extremely low wages at the for-profit immigrant prison, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. On Thursday morning, activists say women imprisoned within the jail joined the strike, which now includes more than 700 immigrants, or about half the population of the prison.

Hunger strikers are demanding better food, hygiene and medical care within the prison, which is owned by the major private prison corporation GEO Group. Organizers also say prisoners have launched work stoppages to protest the fact they’re paid only a dollar a day to cook, to clean, to do the laundry necessary to keep the prison running. GEO Group is facing a class-action lawsuit arguing the company violates federal anti-slavery laws at its Aurora, Colorado, prison, where it also pays only a dollar a day.

The hunger strike began on Monday at noon with more than 100 prisoners refusing to eat lunch. Since then, activists say that they’ve been supporting the hunger strikers with an ongoing 24-hour encampment outside the jail.

For more, we continue with our two guests: Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance and Mijente, and Alexis Erickson, the partner of hunger striker Cristian Lopez. Cristian was part of the hunger strike at the detention center in Tacoma before he was transferred to a jail in New Mexico, where he’s continuing his hunger strike. He’s facing deportation to Mexico. Alexis and Cristian have three U.S.-born children: 7-year-old Nicolas, 2-year-old Lucas and 8-month-old Cristian.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Maru, I wanted to continue with you. You talked about the major reasons for the protest. If you could continue with that, why the hunger strike started, the fact that the women prisoners have now joined in that hunger strike, and then talk about whether there is retaliation for their resistance.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yes. People have complained for a really long time about detention conditions. What has struck us is not only the terrible food that they are being served in the small portions, but also they have complained a lot about the uniforms, that have been worn by many people before them, for many years, that are not really being washed with soap, which means that people are getting sick by wearing this kind of uniforms and underwear. And just a couple of months ago, we had a chickenpox outbreak that lasted about a month in the detention center. We also hear from them again and again and again the lack of access to medical care.

And one of the main things that we believe really make people and push both men and women to begin and join the strike is the fact that courts have been postponed again and again. We have the case of a man that was scheduled a hearing on March 28, then to be postponed to June 6.

We also heard about—of the transfers between Tacoma, Washington, to The Dalles, Oregon, to a county jail there called Norcor, where detention conditions are not only worse, but they don’t even have a law library. So that is impacting people’s cases. Vast majority of people end up representing themselves. They are preparing for their own cases in Tacoma, then to be transferred to this cheaper, way cheaper, county jail, in comparison to GEO in Tacoma, but only to spend really a awful time there, not knowing even where they’re heading, and then transferred back to their next hearing in Tacoma and not having the chance to prepare. In many instances, they have to build their cases from scratch, because they tell us that when they’re back in Tacoma, all their paperwork, that was supposed to be saved in computers, is not there anymore. So people say pretty much this: If you are going to let us fight our cases, then let us fight our cases and build our case and prove that we need to stay. If you’re going to deport us, then so be it, and don’t keep us here for so long. People know that GEO, Tacoma, is pretty much making money for every day that people spend there. And that’s why they decided to strike.

Retaliation now looks like we are going to send you back to Norcor. That’s really scary for people, because they know they’re going to lose their case, and they’re going to be in worse conditions. Two people last night told us, “They threatened us with sending us to Norcor, and we’re going to refuse to go. Doesn’t matter what happens. We’re not going.” And in the women’s section, they told us that they were threatened to put in IV on all of them or send them to solitary confinement. But they are remaining strong. And they want us to be here. They want everybody to know that they’re being so mistreated. The guards are extremely disrespectful to them. But the most important thing, how their families are suffering. If they’re suffering inside, they know that their families are suffering even more in the outside for having them being encaged in this expensive prison, where even families have to pay to keep their relatives inside eating some sort of decent food from the commissary, which is another big business, just doubling prices in the past few months.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Erickson, talk about what Cristian, your husband, your partner, who was at Tacoma jail and now has been transferred to New Mexico, described to you about the conditions at the Tacoma prison run by GEO Group.

ALEXIS ERICKSON: He said that he has just been—it’s just really dirty, like he was showing me, when I went for a visit with my children, how dirty his uniform was. He’s told me, right before he left, he was on the hunger strike for about a day or two. And he was just pretty much crying to me on the visit how bad it is. And then he said being transferred was even worse, how rude the guards were to them, just by asking simple little questions on the bus. And as soon as he got there, he said, “It’s even now worse than it was here.” Like, he just—they don’t get a break for nothing. And I’ve put in a lot of money just to try to help him, to keep him eating, like she was saying, and it’s a lot of money to be doing this. And with three small kids and seeing their father this way, it’s just not right.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the effect on your children? Again, you and [Cristian] have three kids: Lucas—

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —two; Nicolas, 7; and Cristian, named after your partner, who is what? Two months old?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Eight months.

AMY GOODMAN: Eight months old.

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Yes. It’s been a big effect. Every time I go down to support the hunger strike, and my son, all he knows is to take off his coat and go inside. That’s all he knows, is his daddy is pretty much in a cage. And it’s had a big effect on them. They are just constantly angry. And my oldest asks me every time we go down there, “Can we go see Daddy?” because that’s what he knows now, is that his dad was in there. So it’s had a big effect on everything. They’ve just—their whole life has been turned upside down.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that his being moved to a New Mexico jail from Tacoma was retaliation for his being part of the hunger strike?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: Probably it was, yeah. I’ve only heard from him twice since he’s been there. But I think it was, because he did start—like, he stood up for a lot of people in Tacoma, and he just would not put up with it. And he talked back. He let them know how he felt.

AMY GOODMAN: How long has he lived in the United States?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: He’s been here since he’s 13. He is now 26.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s been here for 13 years. What will happen if he is deported to Mexico?

ALEXIS ERICKSON: I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to me and my kids, because I’ve been with him since I was 14. I’m now 25. And he’s supported me and my kids. I’ve never worked a day in my life. He has supported me fully. So—and it’s hard for me to even find a job right now, because I’ll just be paying for daycare for my three children.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Maru Mora Villalpando, can you talk about the community response to the strike, the hunger strike, how much attention it’s getting and what the demands are of people inside and outside at this point?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Well, the response has been amazing. When we went down on Monday at noon to begin with a rally, and waiting to hear from people in detention how long were they planning to be on a strike, and when they told us, “We’re going to be at least for three days,” we had to, all of the sudden, improvise an encampment. So we pulled out—put out a word to the community, saying we need tents, we need canopies. And all of the sudden, after four hours, we had a huge encampment set. People have been coming every day throughout the day, 24/7. We have had between five to 20 people staying the night. And people keep bringing items to us. They bring water. They bring something to eat for us that have stayed there since.

People want to do something, because they don’t want to see this anymore. This is not the first strike that has happened in Tacoma. People feel that, under this new fascist regime, they have to do something. If they’re seeing the leadership of those men and women inside, they know they have to do something in the outside. And so, what we’re asking people to do right now are basic things. If you can come down to Tacoma, we’re asking to take a selfie, put it on the social media with this chant that we always chant out there, “You’re not alone,” “No están solos,” and the hashtag, #HungerStrike, hashtag, #Tacoma, hashtag, #Solidarity.

Also, we have, in our Facebook page, a call to action. We want people to call city of Tacoma, finance management department, because they actually were on record that they would revoke the license for GEO Tacoma if they are found to violate public health or any other safety violations that they—that are happening. So, what we want people to do is call city of Tacoma, tell them, “What else—what other proof do you want?” There are really safety and public health violations in that place. And we have also the numbers listed for ICE Seattle and for the warden of GEO. And tell them to meet the hunger strikers’ demands.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a front-page piece in The New York Times today, before we go, Maru. Plan would limit protections for immigrants held in jails. And it says, “For more than 15 years, jails that hold immigrants facing deportation have had to follow a growing list of requirements:

“Notify immigration officials if a detainee spends two weeks or longer in solitary confinement. Check on suicidal inmates every 15 minutes, and evaluate their mental health every day. Inform detainees, in languages they can understand, how to obtain medical care. In disciplinary hearings, provide a staff member who can advocate in English on the detainee’s behalf.

“But as the Trump administration seeks to quickly find jail space for its crackdown on illegal immigration, it is moving to curtail these rules as a way to entice more sheriffs and local officials to make their correctional facilities available.”

Can you talk about what the effect of this will be on prisoners?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Well, if there—those standards were already weak. That’s why we have all these problems already in place. Now this is just going to get worse. And that’s the reason why we’ve seen more and more people being transferred to the county jail in Oregon, Norcor. We actually asked some people to go down to Oregon and meet with people that had been transferred and now are some of the hunger strikers backing Tacoma. And they were able to find out that Norcor in the past three years have been increasing the number of beds available for ICE. Back in 2015, their budget was about $100,000 per year. Last year, it increased just a little bit more. This year’s budget is over a million dollars. So, yes, there’s a big, big increase this year alone that, obviously, they’re taking advantage of. So this administration is ensuring that they can have more beds available throughout the whole nation. We know that it’s expected just this summer to have at least 47,000 people detained, if probably we have reached that number already, just daily.

So, we really worry that if we don’t push and pressure right now to meet these demands and to keep an eye on these detention conditions just here in Tacoma, throughout the nation things are going to get worse. People are going to be probably going on hunger strike nationally. And people are going to die. We already have people dying in detention centers throughout the nation. We know that. We’re really afraid. I mean, we are being attacked directly by this administration. This administration had declared war against immigrants. But we also wonder who’s going to be next. We know we’re not the only ones, just we are the easiest target right now. And we’re worried what is going to come after this.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru, you are undocumented yourself. Are you at risk for even speaking out in this way, both in the community and going on national television to talk about your activism?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yes, I am, as many, many millions of people right now. We actually have been doing a lot of workshops throughout the state and beyond, teaching people how this administration is getting ready to put us, all of us, in detention and to expedite our deportation, if possible, to make more money out of our bodies. No, they don’t have enough with having us working for them in cheap labor. Now they want disposable labor. Yes, we know we’re in danger, but we’re not going to be afraid. They want us to go back to the shadows. They want us to be quiet and just let it happen. And, well, we say, no, we’re not going to go down that easily. We’re at least going to make their job really, really difficult. We’re not going to step down. We’re going to continue speaking up, because if we don’t, things are going to get worse. And like Cristian said, he’s doing this not only for himself, but for everybody else that are going to continue in this system and for all those families that have been already shattered. And we don’t want any more of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru Mora Villalpando is an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance and the group Mijente. We’ve also been speaking with Alexis Erickson, partner of the hunger striker Cristian Lopez and the mother of their three children—Nicolas, 7; Lucas, 2; and Cristian, 8 months. Cristian’s father, Cristian, was part of the hunger strike in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma before he was transferred to a jail in New Mexico, where he’s continuing his strike. He’s facing imminent deportation to Mexico. To see Part 1 of our conversation with Alexis and Maru, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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