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Judge Rules Against Hunger Strikers At Northwest Detention Center

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A women's area of the Northwest Detention Center seen during a tour on June 21, 2017

A federal judge in Tacoma has ruled against people on hunger strike inside the Northwest Detention Center, denying their request for an emergency order protecting them from force-feeding.

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle sided Wednesday with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Lawyers for the agency argued the government cannot be sued for what guards at the detention center do or say because the guards work for a private contractor, the GEO Group. 

Settle agreed with that argument. In his decision, he cited a past case that found the federal government "cannot be held vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee of an independent contractor."

Attorneys for two detainees were seeking an emergency order protecting their clients, as well as any detainee on hunger strike, from actions they argued were threatening or punitive. Those included force-feeding, solitary confinement, transfer to another facility, or threatening any of those actions. 

"This is a matter of life and death for them," one of the attorneys, Junga Subedar, said of detainees at a news conference Tuesday. "They have no other recourse. And we're trying to protect them with a restraining order to help them exercise this freedom of speech."

ICE attorneys denied guards have threatened the detainees and said the agency has not sought to force-feed either of them.

One of the detainees never missed nine consecutive meals, ICE's threshold for recognizing a hunger strike, attorneys for the agency said.

Raquel Martinez Diaz, a mother of four from Mexico, said she had been on hunger strike to protest her detention. Her attorney said in a court filing that she ended her hunger strike "after an encounter with a guard" Monday.

Another detainee, a 23-year-old asylum-seeker from Russia, has refused food for nearly a month, since Aug. 22. Viacheslav Poliakov is being held alone in a medical room and has agreed to drink fluids, attorneys for ICE said.

Poliakov said he is demanding better medical care for digestive and mental health issues, among other problems, and he wants to be allowed to stay in the U.S. In a court filing, he said he fears he will be killed if he returns to his home country, although the document did not go into detail about his asylum claim.

"He is adamant about continuing on the hunger strike even though it weakens him every day," Subedar, his attorney, said. "Because he has no other choice." 

ICE attorneys said Poliakov has undergone examinations and lab tests and received medications and counselling since April.

At least six times, federal judges in Western Wasington have approved ICE's requests to force-feed detainees, attorneys for the agency said in a court filing. They said details of the cases are sealed due to sensitive personal or medical information.

That history was a surprise for activists who have monitored the detention center for years.

"We didn't expect that anybody had been force-fed, at least in this western part of the state," said Maru Mora Villalpando, a leader of the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance.

"It makes us even more worried that this could mean that ICE will move ahead and try to force-feed Viacheslav and the rest of the hunger strikers," she added.

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.

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