two people walk on a sidewalk past a sign for Northwest Detention Center while holding signs reading "Build kindness not walls" and "We are a nation of immigrants"
Tom and Linda Monnens of Tacoma, Washington, walk past the entrance of the Northwest Detention Center as people attend the Peoples Tribunal Against the Detention Center event in Tacoma, Washington, on Feb. 26, 2017. (JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

José Hernández Carrillo has been imprisoned at the Northwest Detention Center for about two months. The privately owned Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail stands in the port city of Tacoma, Washington—thousands of miles away from his home country of Mexico. Today, advocates say the 48-year-old is being held in so-called medical isolation inside a filthy cell in retaliation for participating in a hunger strike protesting inhumane treatment at the detention center.

The hunger strike began on May 13, led by 13 people in response to worsening conditions at Northwest, which is run by the private prison corporation the GEO Group. As of Thursday, at least four people remain on strike despite what they describe as threats of being pepper-sprayed and force-fed. The hunger strikers were placed in solitary confinement Sunday night—including Hernández Carrillo. He said he was then taken from the solitary unit to Northwest’s medical aisle under the presumption that staff would take his vital signs after he had not eaten for days. But he was placed in medical isolation instead, according to the immigrant justice group La Resistencia.  

The hunger strikers come from different world regions—from El Salvador to India, said Maru Mora-Villalpando, co-founder of La Resistencia. Among their demands are proper COVID-19 protections, access to medical care, for the facility to be properly cleaned, for in-person visits to restart for the first time since March 2020, for their jobs to be reinstated with just pay, and for edible food and a reduction in commissary prices. The rampant lack of access to legal representation and resources that could help people’s immigration cases only adds to the layers of injustice hunger strikers and supporters on the outside are fighting to change. 

In response to the hunger strikers’ demands, the GEO Group said in a statement to Prism it provides people detained at Northwest with “high quality daily meals” and that commissary prices “are in line with comparable local markets.” The corporation also said it has worked to implement practices that ensure “the health and safety of all those entrusted to our care and of our employees has always been our number one priority.”

But hunger strikers describe a different reality.

“This is worse than a punishment. This place is horrible. Not even animals live under these conditions,” Hernández Carrillo said in a Monday phone call recorded by Mora-Villalpando. In the same phone conversation, Hernández Carrillo said armed guards threatened hunger strikers. “What you’re doing is punishing us. You’re isolating us in cells. We haven’t done anything wrong,” Hernández Carrillo reportedly told the guards. 

In a statement to Prism, ICE said it “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.” 

But this isn’t the first time people detained at Northwest have launched a hunger strike, and there are several reports of retaliatory tactics being used against those who engage in these peaceful actions. The ICE facility, which opened in 2004, has for years been accused of abuse and unsafe conditions—all of which worsened during the pandemic. In November 2020, eight people detained at Northwest started a hunger strike after a 19-year-old was allegedly assaulted by a guard who reportedly put their knee on the teen’s neck. Four people were placed in solitary confinement at the time for speaking up against the attack, including a 62-year-old with cancer, according to La Resistencia. 

Last October, a federal jury in Washington found that the GEO Group violated the state’s minimum wage requirements by paying $1 a day to immigrant workers detained at Northwest. At the time, Washington’s minimum wage was $13.69 per hour. The landmark verdict stemmed from consolidated 2017 lawsuits accusing the corporations of violating state labor law and unjustly profiting from immigrant labor. The following month, GEO was ordered to pay over $17 million in back wages to some 10,000 immigrants previously held at Northwest. The GEO Group appealed the decision and has since shut down the working program, Mora-Villalpando said. 

“This is nothing but a business for both GEO and ICE. They both benefit from having people in detention and they will do anything necessary to not only keep their business running, but also to keep this a secret prison,” Mora-Villalpando said. “They abuse people, and they don’t want anybody to know.”

This latest hunger strike comes as the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights published a new report this week detailing systemic sexual harassment and assault at Northwest, and noting that the facility and ICE have refused to investigate these accusations, in violation of their own standards and federal law. The report includes dozens of stories of sexual abuse spanning a decade. On one occasion, an immigrant said a health care provider at Northwest in 2017 groped their glutes inside their underwear and made a comment about their skin. In written grievances, the person said, “I feel assaulted” and “I’m heartbroken by your inadequate service.” The complaint was ultimately deemed unfounded. Another person said they had been sexually harassed by a GEO officer in 2017, and said they felt “unsafe and disturbed.” The report also notes cases of detained people assaulting others detained at Northwest, though Mora-Villalpando said the violence is mainly inflicted by guards and other Northwest staff. 

“The problem this reveals is not one that can be solved by further investigations or audits; the problem is that the agency has total control over detained people’s location, well-being, and access to the outside world, and there is no effective oversight—neither by federal or local governments, nor the courts—to ensure this power is wielded without abuse,” the report said.

The GEO Group has denied the allegations and said in a statement to Prism the corporation takes reports of sexual assault “with the utmost seriousness.” 

One of the sexual abuse survivors joined the current hunger strike and has now been placed in solitary confinement to prevent them from sharing their experience, according to La Resistencia. 

“He told me, ‘I think they’re planning something against me because they know I have a complaint and they don’t want me to complain,’” Mora-Villalpando said. “We have heard these stories for years. GEO and ICE will do anything to keep these kinds of complaints out of the public. They don’t care about people’s well-being. There is no accountability or oversight at all that can actually protect people in detention. People in detention are in danger.”

In April 2021, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law prohibiting the operation and use of private, for-profit ICE detention facilities in the state. Mora-Villalpando attributes the legislation to the numerus hunger strikes and resistance from people detained at Northwest and other facilities. The following month, the GEO Group filed a lawsuit challenging the Washington law. Then in September, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the GEO Group to force the immediate closure of Northwest, saying the corporation was in violation of the new statute. Immigration rights advocates like Mora-Villalpando celebrated the move, but Northwest’s planned closure remains in limbo. 

“We will try anything we can to shut it down as soon as possible. Immigrants are coming together and speaking up. That’s why the retaliation was so immediate,” Mora-Villalpando said. “We don’t want anybody else to have to make the decision to sacrifice their health [to get the public’s attention].”

[UPDATE 05/23: The hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center has ended. Reports from the inside say conditions have improved and ICE has met one of the strikers’ demands.]

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she's currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America...