Isolation & cold cells: Women asylum seekers go on hunger strike to protest mistreatment

© Ross D. Franklin
The only all-women’s immigration detention facility in the country is reportedly dealing with over two dozen hunger strikers demanding to be immediately released. Government sources dispute the claim, but some women and their lawyers are speaking out.

Threats of transfer, deportation, and disciplinary report filings, as well as intrusive surveillance and other retaliatory tactics have been used against detainees at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas since 27 women inmates started refusing food on October 28, according to immigrants, activists and lawyers.

“We are not going to sit by and let this happen,” Christina Parker, a program director for Grassroots Leadership, told Shadowproof, adding, “we’re not going to be quiet.”

Grassroots Leadership, a group against private prisons, released 18 letters from the hunger strikers telling their stories of coming to the US and being a part of the detention process for asylum seekers.

T. Don Hutto, which is run under government contract by the Corrections Corporation of America for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), currently holds approximately 500 women. Many, if not all, observed the initial hunger strikers holding a vigil on October 28, as they were all outside for an evening recreation period. Since then, the outdoor time has been restricted.

One of the strikers was sent to medical isolation, an official act of punishment, in Parker’s opinion. The woman was visited by a lawyer and community advocate, both of whom reported that she had no health problems. Other strikers complained of being placed in cold rooms. ICE says there are no isolation rooms at the facility.

The leader of the hunger strike, Francisca Morales Macías, fled her ex-husband in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where more women are murdered than anywhere else in the country. Morales Macías illegally crossed the US-Mexican border and is claiming asylum status because her husband beat her and the Mexican government wouldn’t do anything about it.

Her daughter, Monica Morales, who was illegally brought to the country at a young age, explained her mom’s situation to Fusion.

“The government in Mexico wouldn’t do anything because he has a lot of family members working in the federal government,” Monica said. “Nobody would help her.”

A request for a Withholding of Removal order to keep Morales Macías from being deported was refused, so she remains in detention while an appeals process plays out. Monica’s mother called her from inside T. Don Hutto after the hunger strike began.

“She said they had her isolated, that she couldn’t do anything, she was only allowed to be in her room, she couldn’t talk to nobody,” Monica told Fusion. That was all she said before the phone call was abruptly ended.

Sometime following that phone call, Morales Macías was transferred to South Texas Detention Center, though her family and lawyers received no notification. Lawyer Frances Valdez contacted ICE, but was given no consistent answer as to why the transfer had occurred.

“They said they transferred her for medical reasons. I asked what medical reasons and they said they didn’t know. And then the next day they said, ‘Oh she’s fine,’” Valdez told Fusion. “Really what it is, is retaliation for the hunger strike.”

There have also been other hunger strikes involving detained immigrants in recent weeks.

Dozens of Bangladeshi, Indian, Afghani, and Pakistani asylum seekers went without food from October 14 to October 20 at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas, fourteen Indian and Bangladeshi asylum seekers refused food on October 19 at the Lasalle Detention Center in Louisiana, and 20 or more Central American men went on a hunger strike on October 30 at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California.