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Lawsuit: Northwest Detention Center Guard Punched Detainee Over Hunger Strike

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is run by a private company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A guard punched a detainee at a Tacoma detention center for immigrants facing deportation in retaliation for a hunger strike, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington claims.

The detainee, Jesus Chavez Flores, has had blurred vision and difficulty opening his eye since the incident earlier this month at the Northwest Detention Center, according to the lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Tacoma.

The ACLU claims guards incorrectly believed Chavez was the leader of a hunger strike that about 120 detainees participated in beginning Feb. 7.

The detainees sought to draw attention to their dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of food they receive and a work program in which participants are paid $1 a day to cook, clean, and help maintain the facility, the lawsuit said. Detainees have regularly staged hunger strikes over those issues for several years. 

“I participated in the hunger strike because I've seen the injustices that people here in detention have faced," Chavez is quoted as saying in a news release by the ACLU. "And for taking peaceful action to protest injustice, I have been hit, injured and unfairly punished." 
The Northwest Detention Center holds up to 1,575 people at a time on Tacoma's tideflats as they await deportation proceedings. It is run by a private company, the GEO Group Inc., under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

A GEO Group representative said the company "strongly denies these allegations" and referred further questions to ICE.

An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits as a matter of policy. She added that Department of Homeland Security officers "uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security."

The GEO Group and outside inspectors have maintained that conditions at the detention center meet federal standards. 

Chavez's participation in the hunger strike amounted to refusing a single lunch, after which a guard "widely known to be especially aggressive" shoved detainees, choked one of them, and then punched Chavez "without provocation," according to a news release from the ACLU. 

Before the incident, the lawsuit says, a guard told Chavez to "shut up" after overhearing him tell another detainee about his reasons for joining the hunger strike. This led to the guard calling Chavez to the front of his unit, and a tense discussion between several guards and detainees, the lawsuit says.

Since Feb. 10, Chavez has been held in solitary confinement on charges he was trying to make alcohol using fermented apples and water. Chavez says someone else placed those items among his belongings, according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU also claims GEO Group and ICE administrators approved Chavez's solitary confinement "without following proper procedures" including written notification of the charges in Spanish. He is scheduled to be released from solitary confinement on March 1.

Chavez's wife, who is not detained, reported the alleged attack on her husband to Tacoma police, according to the lawsuit, which says an officer interviewed Chavez and guards on Feb. 14. A Tacoma police spokeswoman said the incident was documented, but did not have more information. 

“Mr. Chavez exercised his First Amendment right to freedom of speech by participating in a peaceful hunger strike to protest conditions of confinement at the detention center,"  said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said in a news release. "This retaliation is a clear violation of his rights, and part of a nationwide pattern of intimidation and retaliation under the Trump administration." 

The ACLU says it is seeking Chavez's release from solitary confinement as well as a judge's order preventing the GEO Group and ICE from retaliating against Chavez. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.