ICE force-fed immigrant detainees who went on hunger strike, placed them in solitary confinement - ACLU report

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Immigration detainees in ICE custody were force-fed in retaliation for going on hunger strikes to protest conditions inside U.S. immigration detention facilities, according to a new report.

Hunger strikers were subjected to forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization and other involuntary and invasive medical procedures, placed in solitary confinement and experienced retaliatory deportations and transfers, according to the report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights.

"Given the fact that hunger strikes are a First Amendment protected activity — this speech is protected by the Constitution — and to see the level of retaliation and truly brutal medical procedures that are being used against people against their will is truly shocking," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project and co-author of the report.

An ICE official disputed the report's findings.

“ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers," Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokesperson in Phoenix, said in a written statement.

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"For their health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike," Pitts O'Keefe said. "Additionally, ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to its detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers."

The report was based on 10,000 documents dating from 2013 to 2017 — during both the Obama and Trump administrations — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, along with interviews with six formerly detained individuals who participated in hunger strikes during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The report covers hunger strikes by at least 1,378 people from 74 countries across 62 publicly and privately run immigration detention centers in 24 states, including 19 hunger strikes at two facilities in Arizona, the Eloy Detention Center and the Florence Detention Center. The hunger strikers included people protesting their detention or living conditions, as well as some struggling with mental illness, the report said.

The report noted that a detained person’s "refusal to eat may be the last option available to voice complaint, after all other methods of petition have failed."

The report found that ICE sought court orders to subject hunger strikers without legal representation to involuntary medical procedures including forced feeding, which violated their due process rights.

Cho said she was also troubled by the "complicity of medical professionals at ICE detention centers" in subjecting hunger strikers to involuntary medical procedures, which have been condemned as violating medical ethics by the American Medical Association.

Hunger strikes up during pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration detainees increasingly have resorted to hunger strikes to protest health and safety conditions inside detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"One thing we know in particular is that hunger strikes have been on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, given all of the abuses that we've heard about during the pandemic, and the failure of ICE to provide basic safety measures for people, and the desperation people are feeling," Cho said.

In April 2020, correctional officers at the La Palma Correctional Center fired pepper balls and pepper spray to quell a peaceful protest among detainees objecting to the inadequate provision of protective equipment to stop the spread of COVID-19, a government watchdog inspection found.

ICE officials noted that the inspection by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General did not find that the use of pepper balls and pepper spray violated the performance-based national standards for use of force adopted by the agency in 2011.

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Cho called on the Biden administration to look for more humane ways to respond to hunger strikers inside immigration detention facilities.

"The Biden administration certainly has a new opportunity to investigate both its reliance on immigration detention in the first place, and also a new course of treatment for people who are engaged in hunger strikes in a much more humane way," Cho said.

The report's findings show that ICE often resorts to extremes such as forced feeding rather than trying to address the concerns raised by hunger strikers, she said.

Legal representation can sometimes help resolve the issue, Cho noted.

In 2017, ICE sought an order to force-feed a detainee who was on a hunger strike at the Florence Detention Center in Arizona because he felt unsafe in a housing pod because of his ethnicity. But the detainee, who was represented by the ACLU of Arizona and Perkins Coie law firm, started eating again after ICE agreed to move the detainee to a different housing unit, Cho and the report said.

Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: ACLU report: In retaliation, ICE force-fed detainees on hunger strike