Now in its fifth day, the hunger strike was called by detainees
demanding an end to U.S. deportations and better conditions at the
privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Some 27 hunger strikers were placed in medical isolation Tuesday
morning, but 22 of them later ate meals and returned to the general
population, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a
statement, adding that none of those fasting have been punished.
Of the hundreds of detainees who initially took part in the protest,
five were still participating, ICE said.
Advocates backing the group, which put the number of striking
inmates higher, have said detainees have faced intimidation tactics
by the prison, such as open threats of forced feeding and efforts to
isolate strike leaders.
Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of Seattle-based Latino Advocacy,
said she had spoken by phone on Tuesday afternoon with one of the
remaining strikers, Ramon Mendozo Pascual, who told her he would
continue fasting until the demands had been met.
"They are civil rights activists and whistleblowers," Villalpando
said. "They are telling the world the about the terrible conditions
they're facing, and they're risking their health and life to do it."
The hunger strike, inspired in part by similar protests begun last
month outside an ICE office in Phoenix, comes at a time of a
protracted and tense national debate on immigration reform.
Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States
have hit record highs, according to government data.
An ICE spokesman said the agency and officials from GEO Group, which
runs the facility, were seeking to improve some conditions inside.
"Several issues that have been brought to management's attention are
being addressed, including adding more items to the commissary list
and exploring ways to reduce prices," said Andrew Munoz, a
Seattle-based ICE spokesman in a statement.
Involuntary feeding would only occur as a last resort, Munoz said.
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At the strike's outset on Friday, more than half of the center's
roughly 1,300 detainees refused meals, with ICE putting the number
at 750 and advocates claiming that 1,200 were participating.
Among the strikers' demands have been better food, an increase in
their $1-per-day pay and a reduction in the bond amounts they must
pay to be released pending the outcome of their deportation cases.
ICE said in a statement that in many cases bond amounts could only
be changed by an immigration judge.
The GEO Group has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
The official average stay for detainees at the center is four
months, but most wind up staying longer, said Sandy Restrepo, an
attorney for several of those who took part in the strike.
Last year in California, prisoners staged hunger strikes over a
two-month period to protest the policy of keeping some inmates in
near-isolation for years. They ended the strike in September, after
state lawmakers agreed to hold hearings on the practice.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.;
editing by Eric
M. Johnson and Eric Walsh)
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