Special to the Vanguard
BAKERSFIELD AND MCFARLAND, CA. – People detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield and the Golden State Annex in McFarland have put a pause on a month-long hunger strike protesting inhumane conditions at the two immigration detention facilities, as a result of being subjected to weeks of retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group, the for-profit prison company that owns and operates the facilities. Strikers asserted their right to protest for a total of 35 days—from Feb. 17 to March 24, 2023—persisting even as detention center officials engaged in violent tactics to break the strike.
According to detained people and their legal representatives, within several days of the start of the protest, hunger strikers faced retaliation in the form of threats of solitary confinement and bans on family visitation, among other degradations to the conditions of their civil detainment. On March 7, the retaliation took a violent turn.
In the early morning, an ICE special response unit raided a dorm at Mesa Verde, slammed at least three strikers to the floor, placed them in handcuffs, and transferred four strikers to a facility in El Paso, Texas, where they broke their strike after being threatened with force-feeding by court order. Strikers at Mesa Verde that witnessed the violent transfers broke their strike in fear of being subjected to further retaliation. ICE officials claimed the transfer was necessary to provide “a higher level of medical care.” However, a letter led by legal service providers and another letter led by medical providers detail the violations of medical standards, including practices that can cause death.
On March 14, ICE agents raided the Golden State Annex. At least one person had an officer kneel on his head, causing injuries to his face, and a total of three people were removed from the facility. All phone lines were cut after the raid began—including protected attorney lines. Attorneys representing the three individuals discovered hours later that ICE had transferred those strikers to the El Paso facility citing similar reasons. The three individuals persisted in their strike for 11 more days before resuming meals in fear of being force-fed, and in the hopes of being transferred back to California.
On March 29, 2023, legal representatives received confirmation that the seven individuals previously transferred to El Paso, Texas were transferred back to California. At least one of the hunger strikers has been admitted to the hospital multiple times.
“We risked our lives to go on hunger strike because there is no dignified way to live inside detention,” said Gustavo, a hunger striker detained at Golden State Annex. “Our protest was always peaceful, and as days passed, ICE’s response became more violent. It is terrifying to know that at any moment ICE can disconnect the phones, leaving us without any communication to the outside, and do whatever they want to us. It got to a point where we couldn’t continue our protest without the fear of significant harm. We are grateful that in the moments where we were shut out, people on the outside amplified our voices. It is powerful to witness the love and compassion grow from a place that is inherently violent. Our fight for freedom will continue.”
The strikers vowed to continue their fight towards collective liberation and the shutdown of both the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and the Golden State Annex. Families, advocates, and members of the community continue to call on their representatives, including U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and Congressman Lou Correa, to hold ICE and GEO Group accountable for their medical negligence, contract violations, and inhumane treatment.
“These brave individuals put their bodies on the line to fight for their rights and shine a light on the inhumane and violent tactics used by ICE and GEO Group,” said members of the Mesa Verde-Golden State Annex Support Committee, a group of civil rights and legal organizations that provided support to the strikers. “They have overwhelming community support. Hundreds of people sent emails to ICE officials and Senator Padilla, demanding the release of the hunger strikers and the closure of both detention facilities. Congressional offices also supported their demands and are calling for an investigation.”
The hunger strike sparked national attention and inspired protests at other facilities, including in Louisiana and San Diego, Calif. The collective action was an escalation of an ongoing labor strike protesting $1-a-day pay for work performed by people detained in the Mesa Verde and Golden State facilities, and dangerous working conditions, including exposure to black mold.