On October 28, 27 women being held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center began a hunger strike with a single demand: immediate release from an immigration detention center that they say neglects them and their rights. Fourteen days later, local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership reports that the growing group of women is still refusing to eat and is now facing retaliatory measures.
We spoke to Christina Parker, Grassroots Leadership’s immigration program director, for an update:
How many women do you estimate are currently on hunger strike at Hutto?
Parker: The hunger strike has moved into a new phase of rolling strikes. The original strike started almost two weeks ago and women have a biological need to begin eating again. So now, women will fast one section (each section is about 40 to 50 women) for a few days, and then stop and another section will begin. Twenty-seven women started the strike, and over the course of the last week, we confirmed that three sections were on strike at the height of the protest. So that’s at least 125 women, with 40 to 50 striking at any given time.
How are they sustaining themselves?
During the initial strike, women only took in water or sugar water. During the rolling strikes, they'll use time to rest while another section strikes to sustain themselves. In addition being a way to sustain themselves, they told us they are employing this system this to try to hide from ICE who is and isn’t eating. ICE has been taking inventory of who is eating and who isn’t and intimidating women they believe are not eating. The rolling hunger strike is a way for them to continue to resist, but be less easy to target for retaliation, which is brilliant and shows how committed they are.
How many of the striking women have reportedly been moved to other facilities?
We know of two women [Francisca Morales Macias and Amalia Arteaga Leal] who have been moved to the detention center in Pearsall, a historically all-men’s facility that is notorious for its conditions. Apparently, there is a small women’s wing. We know of at least four others moved to the Laredo detention center on the border, which is also known for bad conditions. According to a rushed phone call from inside the night they were moved (late Thursday, early Friday), as many as 12 may have been taken to Laredo and perhaps half of them had been participating in the strike.
How many have been moved into solitary confinement?
Two women have faced solitary confinement that we know of. Insis [Maribel Zelaya Bernardez] was placed in solitary at Hutto the first weekend of the hunger strike. This was confirmed by her attorney and friend who went and demanded to see her and a letter she wrote about the experience. Francisca, who was moved to Pearsall, has been in solitary since she arrived. We and her family are extremely concerned about her well-being and want her released to pursue to case outside of detention as soon as possible. It is worth explaining here that ICE will say they do not have any solitary confinement cells in immigrant detention. But what they leave out is that they do have single cells in the medical units and this is where they will lock women up, under the pretext of medical care. But it is obvious to the women that it is a punishment, especially since they have reported that don’t see anyone while they’re in there, including any doctors or nurses. This was what we saw in the reports of solitary used against mothers and children during the Karnes hunger strikes.
ICE officials told Colorlines that there is no strike. What is your response to that?
ICE has a policy of always denying there is a hunger strike, whether they have investigated it or not. We see this again and again, every time a strike erupts. But we have phone calls, letters and testimony from dozens of people who have visited the women inside, the reports from their lawyers all saying there is a hunger strike and the women are facing retaliation for it. ICE’s denials are just a PR policy.
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In addition to the women who have been transferred, other women have reported that they have faced other forms of retaliation, including threat of deportation, disciplinary reports for refusing to leave the dorm at meal time, heightened surveillance for the women who are perceived as leading the strike, restricted mobility inside the facility, denial of outside recreation and attempts at force feeding.
Colorlines contacted ICE for comment, and public affairs officer Adelina Pruneda said: “ICE takes the health, safety and welfare of those in our care very seriously and we continue to monitor the situation. Currently, no one at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat.” However she added that, “ICE has explained the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees.”
When asked about detainees who were transferred or placed into solitary confinement, Pruneda said that “the T. Don Hutto facility does not have solitary confinement areas,” and that “ICE routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” She also denied that detainees are being barred from going outside.
Grassroots Leadership’s website provides guidance for those who want to support the strikers. The video below provides translated audio for a phone call from a woman who is participating on the hunger strike.