By Laurel Spear
BAKERSFIELD, CA— Eighty-four immigrants began hunger strikes at two Central Valley immigration detention centers to protest inhumane conditions and wages in the centers. On Feb. 17 2023, hunger strikes began at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield and Golden State Annex in McFarland. At first, ICE denied the strike, but on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 19, ICE confirmed it after eighty-four immigrants missed 9 consecutive meals.
According to a class action lawsuit filed Thursday against ICE and the The GEO Group, who owns the detention centers, immigrants participating in the hunger strikes claim staff and authorities are retaliating against them for striking. The immigrants allege that facility staff have harassed them since the hunger strike began, including threats of solitary confinement, insults and ridicule, “sexually abusive” pat downs, and turning up the air conditioning in the center to biting temperatures. This treatment coincides with the winter storms that have plunged temperatures in Bakersfield to below 50 degrees.
“Since the hunger strike began, defendants have denied or restricted plaintiffs’ access to the law library, family visitation, church, yard time, and recreational activities,” the class action suit explains, going on to say that “defendants’ actions are intended to punish individuals for their peaceful protest.”
This hunger strike is not the first one that immigrants at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex have launched. In Spring 2020, immigrants at Mesa Verde began a hunger strike to protest lack of safety conditions to protect against the novel coronavirus. The strike began due to inadequate social distancing, cleaning supplies or sanitary measures. Although there were already too many people at the facility to allow proper social distancing, ICE continued to send more detainees to the facility throughout the 2020 hunger strike.
The current hunger strikes follow a 10 month labor strike in which immigrants protested their $1 a day wages at the detention facilities. In July 2022, nine immigrants sued The GEO Group over these daily wages. According to ACLU attorney and hunger strike representative Minju Cho, “the current strike is an escalation of their attempts to request better conditions and humane treatment by ICE and Geo.”
Both Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex are privately-owned by The GEO Group, Inc. a Florida-based corporation that owns and operates immigration detention facilities, jails, and prisons. The GEO Group is a $1.14 billion company that operates some of the largest detention centers in California and across the country.
In an email to the Fresno Bee last week, ICE explained that “the agency takes allegations of misconduct very seriously — personnel are held to the highest standards of professional and ethical behavior, and when a complaint is received, it is investigated thoroughly to determine veracity and ensure comprehensive standards are strictly maintained and enforced.”
There have been no concessions made by ICE or The GEO Group since the hunger strikes began.
Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.