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Immigrant Detainees On Hunger Strike In Tacoma Have Refused Food For 24 Days

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A medical treatment room at the Northwest Detention Center, seen during a tour on June 21, 2017

Three people held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma have refused food for 24 days as they protest conditions inside the facility and their own potential deportations.

The detainees have been on hunger strike since Aug. 22 and are under medical supervision, said a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“ICE takes the health, safety and welfare of those in its care very seriously and respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference," the spokeswoman said Thursday.

Another woman has said she has been on hunger strike since Aug. 30. Others have joined since, according to activists. 

Lawyers for two of the detainees on hunger strike went to court Thursday in an attempt to block ICE officials from force-feeding anyone who is well enough to refuse it.

Arguments before a judge are scheduled for Tuesday in federal court in Tacoma, one of the attorneys said. 

Viacheslav Poliakov, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Russia, said in a court filing he was tortured in his home country and fears he will be killed if he returns. The document does not go into detail about his asylum claim.

He is among the three men who began refusing meals Aug. 22. The two other men are also from Russia, activists said. 

Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist who has communicated with detainees participating in hunger strikes since 2014, said she believes this is the longest anyone there has refused food. 

"We have had people going for about two weeks, maybe more than two weeks, and then people taking turns after that," she said. "But I think that this is the first time we've seen much longer than two weeks, based on our experience." 

Poliakov, who has been detained for about four months, said he is advocating for better medical care. He has complained of severe digestive problems and fears he has a sexually transmitted disease due to infected, ulcerated looking skin on his legs and elsewhere on his body, he said in a court filing.

He said he has pleaded repeatedly for medical help, but staff at the detention center "always try to ignore or minimize my medical condition."

"My stomach problems have gotten worse the last two weeks with big pain from not being able to have regular bowel movements," Poliakov said in the court filing. "The doctor gave me painkillers and shots for pain, but it is not helping. I have burns on my legs and need special cream they won't give me."

He also said he seeking treatment for trauma he experienced in Russia.

Poliakov's attorney, Junga Subedar, said that when she saw him earlier this week he appeared "very weak" after 20 days on hunger strike and was in a wheelchair. 

"The reason they go on strike is because they're inside and they have no other choice except to risk their health and use their bodies to try to get this message out that's important to them," she said. 

Attorneys are seeking an emergency order preventing force-feeding, and also preventing officials from warning detainees that hunger strikes could result in punishments like solitary confinement or transfer to another facility. 
"The force-feeding that they're being threatened with is to shut down their voices and to stop their hunger strike," Subedar added. "It's very intimidating because force-feeding is a violent, invasive, and painful treatment."

ICE officials received a court order allowing them to involuntarily hydrate one person who has been on hunger strike since Aug. 22, but the person agreed to voluntarily drink one liter of fluid three times a day, ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said in an email.

"ICE educates its detainees on the negative health effects of not eating," she said. "Additionally, for their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike."

ICE's guidelines say involuntary medical treatment is only used when a detainee's life or long-term health are in danger. 

Raquel Martinez Diaz, a mother of four from Mexico, said she began a hunger strike on Aug. 30, about a week after she entered the Northwest Detention Center. 

"I heard other people here and in other detention centers were doing a hunger strike because they wanted detention centers to be closed," she said in a court filing. "I realized if there were no detention centers, ICE would not grab people and jail them here." 

Days later, she said, ten other women in her living area joined the hunger strike. She said they want ICE "and people outside to give us a chance to live legally in this country and prove that we can be good citizens, integrated in society." 

She said officers at the detention center warned her the hunger strike could result in force-feeding or solitary confinement.

An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment on claims made in the court filings, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. 

On Sept. 6, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington wrote to the U.S. attorney's office and warden of the detention center outlining the legal rights of detainees who are on hunger strike.

The attorney, Enoka Herat, wrote ICE must obtain a court order to begin involuntary medical treatment, and only after a doctor has deemed a person's life or long-term health to be at risk. 

Hunger strikes have broken out at the Northwest Detention Center in 2014, 2017, and earlier this year.

In the past, detainees have demanded better food and larger portions, better medical care, and higher wages for jobs they perform. Detainees who opt into a work program are paid $1 per day for cooking, cleaning, and maintenance work. 

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.