Commentary Media

#TwitterFail: Twitter’s Refusal to Handle Online Stalkers, Abusers, and Haters

Imani Gandy

What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online has become an exercise in personal fortitude. Why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? And why has Twitter left the problem to its users to solve?

I’ve been a Twitter user for more than five years. In that period, I’ve amassed nearly 25,000 followers, and fired off more than 200,000 tweets. I’ve made friends, I started a new career, I got a new job, I became co-host of an award-winning podcast, and I moved to a new city—all through or because of connections that I made on Twitter.

Increasingly, however, I’ve begun to loathe Twitter. What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online became an exercise in personal fortitude. I open my Twitter client, preemptively wincing at the litany of racist and sexist slurs that usually await me from anonymous keyboard warriors whose only purpose on Twitter is to disrupt, harass, and abuse.

Not that Twitter —or indeed the Internet as a whole—hasn’t always been fraught with assholes. Look at the comments on most news articles posted on Yahoo! or videos posted on YouTube—they’re an apocalyptic wasteland for the misspelled racist and misogynist ramblings of people so wretched that they should be loaded into a cannon and shot directly into the sun.

But it’s easy to avoid the degenerate online commentariat as a whole—you can just avoid reading the comments.

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But on Twitter, the hate-filled invective spewed by the dregs of society awaits you in your notifications. It’s personal and there’s no avoiding it.

In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called “nigger” so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore. And when combined with the standard sexist slurs that routinely get lobbed at women on Twitter, let’s just say that my “nigger cunt” cup runneth over.

It has been exhausting.

Assholster: Its Right in the Name

For the past two years, I have been harassed by someone calling himself Assholster, an anonymous Twitter asshole who, on most days, creates up to ten different Twitter accounts just so he can hurl racist slurs at me: I’m a “nigger,” I look “niggery,” I haven’t earned my “nigger card,” I’m a “pseudonigger,” “fucking niggster,” or “scab nigger.”

If you winced when you read that list of slurs, imagine having them lobbed at you nearly every day for two years.

Checking my Twitter mentions has been like playing a perverse game of Press Your Luck —“No Assholster, no Assholster, no Assholster. STOP!”

Some days I’d get lucky. Most days, however, there he’d be—with his stupid Grumpy cat avatar—taking his anger at the world out on me.

I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do when dealing with assholes on the Internet—all the victim-blaming advice that Twitter has to offer.

I didn’t respond to Assholster. I’ve blocked at least a thousand of his accounts over the past two years. I’ve reported him using Twitter’s “Report Abuse” form. I briefly considered calling the police, but, really, what would be the point? I’ve seen how police treat stalking victims and victims of online harassment far more severe than mine. What did I expect them to do? “That anonymous Internet troll is saying shitty things about me on the Internet. Seize him!”

Nothing worked and the harassment got worse.

His messages to me have grown increasingly personal. He uses my full name in his tweets—creepy. He mocks my medical condition, claiming that I have a fake brain tumor—idiotic. He says that I’m pretending to be Black—what does that even mean?

And when he’s not playing the victim, ironically complaining that I am the one harassing him, or that I am bigoted against him, or that I’m to blame for getting his multiple hate-speech accounts suspended, he is ranting and raving about kikes and niggers.

I’ve endured this for two years, and so have countless others. He creates hundreds of accounts to tweet his inane ramblings to my friends, online acquaintances, and even my work. He latches on to any tweet of mine and harasses anyone that I interact with.

It got to the point where I began to feel responsible for subjecting my friends to his invective.

But why should I feel responsible? It’s not my responsibility; it’s Twitter’s.

Twitter, Can You Hear Me?

After two years of blocking and reporting Assholster, I decided on a more direct approach. I began taking screenshots of the harassment and tweeting them to both Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, and to Twitter Support. I also started hash-tagging my tweets “#Assholster.

I knew that by doing this, the harassment would likely escalate—and it did—but I thought if I could make Mr. Costolo or anyone who works at Twitter Support or Safety hear me—if I could make them see exactly what it is that I endure on a daily basis—then maybe Twitter would do something.

So, every time Assholster tweeted me, I would tweet some variation of the following.

And I would include a screenshot.

After several days of this, Costolo finally responded: “we are on this in a couple different ways. I’d prefer to leave it at that here. Thanks very much.”

Well that’s nice, Mr. Costolo, but I’d prefer to not have this asshole calling me “nigger” day in and day out. And I’d also prefer a little transparency when it comes to whatever it is you folks at Twitter are doing about serial harassers.

Reporting Abuse: Why Bother?

Last summer, it seemed as if Twitter might finally be shamed into action. In the wake of a barrage of rape and death threats received by Caroline Criado Perez—a British feminist who campaigned to have Jane Austen appear on a Bank of England note—Twitter introduced a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag abusive tweets directly from Twitter.

It changed everything! And by “everything,” I mean “nothing.”

The only thing the “report abuse” button does is to remove one step from Twitter’s standard process for reporting abuse. Before the “report abuse” button, you’d have to do an Internet search for Twitter’s “Report Abusive User” form in order to report an abusive tweet. The “report abuse” button immediately directs you to the form so you don’t have to Google it.

Yes, it’s as pointless as it sounds because as anyone who has bothered to report an abusive tweet knows, the “Report Abusive User” form is about as effective as your average YouTube commenter at a spelling bee.

First, Twitter often takes days, weeks, or even months to respond to a report of abuse. Second, reporting an individual user for harassment is useless in cases where the abusive user’s account has already been suspended—and a new account created—by the time you complete the reporting process. In such cases, Twitter just shrugs its shoulders: Sorry. That account has been suspended. Nothing we can do.

And even though Twitter expressly prohibits “Serial Accounts,” i.e., creating “multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes,” Twitter has no way of preventing the Assholsters of the world from doing so.

In fact, many serial harassers use scripts to create multiple new accounts automatically, which is why most of Assholster’s Twitter handles are simply a string of letters: @gndmxkll or @gnndcdm.

Twitter doesn’t even bother to make sure that its users are following its own rules.

Fucking Die Feminist Moron

I’m not the only woman who is fed up with Twitter’s lax approach to abuse. One Twitter user, Kristin Puhl, reported a threat she received to Twitter: “fucking die feminist moron i’m coming after u and raping u.”  According to Puhl, it took Twitter two days to respond to her report, and when they did, they informed Puhl that the tweet did not violate Twitter’s rules.

Got that? It is not a violation of Twitter’s rules to threaten to rape another Twitter user.

As Puhl aptly put it, “I am so angry @Twitter. If you don’t take violent threats seriously, why even have a section for reporting them?”

Why, indeed.

I asked Shanley Kane, founder and CEO of Model View Culture and critic of the tech industry’s unbearable whiteness of being, about the harassment she endures on Twitter. “There’s the constant background, opportunistic, low-grade harassment—responses to my tweets that are deliberately using hate speech, sexist slurs and words, or juvenile trolling,” she wrote in an email.

Many women on Twitter are familiar with this type of harassment. It is so commonplace that many of us have grown accustomed to it. It has become the price that we pay for simply daring to have an opinion and express it on Twitter.

“Another type is I have somewhere between two and four (It’s hard to determine because they often utilize multiple accounts) people who have been consistently stalking and harassing me for more than 9 months, often with daily harassing contact,” Kane added.

This is the sort of serial harassment and stalking that seems to be reserved for prominent women on Twitter, feminists, or women who have a large following. (I recently asked my followers whether any had experienced this sort of serial harassment. “I’m not that big-time,” one Twitter user replied to me.)

Kane has been very vocal about Twitter’s failure to address harassment. On July 29, she spearheaded an effort to encourage Twitter users to use a tweet chat sponsored by CNBC—#AskCostolo—as a way to air their grievances about Twitter’s ineffective abuse policy.

Thirty-two percent of the comments and questions tweeted on the #AskCostolo hashtag were related to safety, privacy and abuse, according to a social analytics firm. And many of the tweets were variations on the same theme:

Why aren’t rape threats a violation of Twitter’s terms of service?

Why can’t Twitter prevent people from creating serial accounts to harass Twitter users?

Why does Twitter use the diversity of its user base as a selling point for advertisers while ignoring the harassment that its diverse users suffer?

Why is it that Black people comprise more than a quarter of Twitter’s user base, but Twitter won’t do anything about the rampant racism those users face? (Notably, Twitter just hired a “multicultural strategist” to head up plans to target Black, Hispanic, and Asian users for advertising—you know—the same users that it ignores when it comes to dealing with racism on Twitter.)

The questions went on and on for hours.

But did Costolo address any of those concerns during his interview with CNBC? Nope. Has anyone at Twitter responded to the thousands of tweets from its users asking what Twitter is doing to fix the harassment and abuse problem? Of course not.

The question remains, why not?

“There is no inherent technical reason why Twitter can’t better address abuse and harassment on its platform,” said Shanley Kane. “Twitter employs literally thousands of engineers at the top of the field, and has access to the best talent, research, and resources the world has to offer, in addition to the capital to obtain it,” she added.

Third-Party Developers Step Up

While Twitter with its thousands of engineers has been unable or unwilling to develop solutions to the rampant racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and transphobic harassment that its users suffer on a daily basis—solutions like those suggested by iOS developer Danilo Campos in a recent blog post entitled “The Least Twitter Could Do”—Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently stepped up.

Last Monday, Hoffman-Andrews unveiled Block Together, a new app “intended to help cope with harassers and abusers on Twitter.” To say that the app has changed my Twitter life is to understate its significance to me.

I am now able to control my Twitter experience in ways that before I could not. Block Together permits me to share my list of blocked users (over 5,000 users) with other Twitter users (and vice versa) so that I can avoid those users that people whom I trust have already deemed unworthy of my time.

More importantly, however, the app permits me to automatically block accounts less than seven days old that tweet at me.

I signed up for the app immediately, and for the past six days, I have had a reprieve from the constant barrage of racist and misogynist insults and slurs that had become a part of my daily Twitter experience.

Block Together is currently the only app that permits users to control their own content. But another app is in the works: San Francisco-based developer Cori Johnson is working on Flaminga, an app that promises even more robust solutions to Twitter abuse than those currently offered by Block Together.

So there you have it: Two developers are attacking Twitter’s abuse problem while Twitter twiddles its thumbs.

Still, why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? Why has Twitter left the problem to its users to solve?

White Guys Doing It by Themselves

After a public chiding from Color of Change and Rainbow Push Coalition, Twitter recently released statistics on its diversity. The results are unsurprising: Like its peer companies, Facebook and Google, the social media giant is a giant failure when it comes to diversity.

According to the numbers released last month, 90 percent of employees who work in tech roles are male; 92 percent of tech employees are white or Asian; and 96 percent of leadership roles are held by white or Asian people. In addition, 90 percent of employees in tech are men, and 79 percent of the leadership roles are held by men. Blacks and Hispanics comprise a measly 1 and 3 percent of Twitter’s United States tech workforce, respectively.

To put it bluntly, Twitter is run primarily by white guys who are presumably straight. And because, for the most part, straight white guys don’t endure the same level of online harassment that women do, they simply cannot understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of relentless abuse. After all, to paraphrase Louis C.K., you can’t even hurt a white man’s feelings.

For women, the harassment on Twitter is often unbearable, and the facile response of those who are not subjected to regular harassment—and, indeed, the response of Twitter itself—is infuriating: “Don’t feed the trolls.” “Just block them.”

But “just block them” is not a solution for those of us who are relentlessly assailed by Twitter users who have nothing better to do than to slap us in the face with their hate-filled filth, and who, upon account suspension, create new accounts in order to continue their campaign of harassment.

Often, the best solution is to reduce Twitter activity or to quit the platform entirely. I know many women who have already done that. But that solution benefits neither the victims of harassment nor Twitter. If, as Twitter claims, its goal is to reach every person on the planet, then Twitter higher-ups are going to need to acknowledge that most of the people on the planet aren’t straight white dudes, and they’re going to need to come up with a way curb the abuse.

Until that time, developers of apps like Block Together are stepping up to fill the void—a void that, thus far, Twitter refuses to fill itself.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

News Human Rights

Mothers in Family Detention Launch Hunger Strike: ‘We Will Get Out Alive or Dead’

Tina Vasquez

The hunger strikers at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania are responding to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days. The women say they've been in detention with their children between 270 and 365 days.

On Monday, 22 mothers detained inside Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center, one of the two remaining family detention centers in the country, launched a hunger strike in response to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days.

The average length of stay for the 22 hunger strikers has been between 270 and 365 days, they say.

Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant rights organization Juntos and a core member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, informed the women detained inside Berks of Johnson’s recent comment via email, hoping they would want to release a statement that her organization could help amplify. Instead, the women decided to launch a hunger strike, with recent reports indicating the number of participants has risen to 26.

“When Johnson said [ICE] only detain[s] people for 20 days, he said that thinking that no one would care,” Almiron told Rewire. “Our goal has always been to make people aware of the inhumane nature of detention in general, but also that children are being locked up and moms are being held indefinitely.”

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By definition, “family detention” means the women in Berks are detained alongside their children, who range in age from 2 to 16 years old. In an open letter addressed to Johnson, the women share that their children have routinely expressed suicidal thoughts as a direct result of being imprisoned. The women allege that they are being threatened by psychologists and doctors in the detention center for making this information public, but are choosing to move forward with the hunger strike.

In part, the letter reads:

The teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape. Other kids grab their IDs and tighten them around their necks and say that they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out of here. The youngest kids (2 years old) cry at night for not being able to express what they feel … We are desperate and we have decided that: we will get out alive or dead. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: We will do it!

An August 2015 report about the Berks center by Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization, seemed to confirm what women and children detained inside of the facility have been saying since the detention center’s inception in 2001: Detention is no place for families and being imprisoned is detrimental to the health and well-being of children.

According to the Human Rights First report, detained parents in Berks experience depression, which only exacerbates the trauma they experienced in their countries of origin, and their children exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and increased aggression. Frequent room checks that take place at 15-minute intervals each night also result in children experiencing insomnia, fear, and anxiety, the report says.

Families detained inside of Berks have no real means to alleviate these symptoms because the facility does not provide adequate mental health care, according to the report. Human Rights First notes that Berks does not have Spanish-speaking mental health providers, “though the majority of families sent to family detention in the United States are Spanish-speaking and many have suffered high rates of trauma, physical and sexual violence, and exploitation.”

The organization also explains that only 23 of the total staff at Berks (or less than 40 percent) reportedly speak some conversational Spanish, “making it difficult for many staff members to effectively communicate with children and their parents.”

Berks has a history of human rights abuses. A 41-year-old former counselor at Berks was recently sentenced to between six and 23 months of jail time for the repeated sexual assault of a 19-year-old asylum-seeking mother. The young woman, along with her 3-year-old son, fled sexual domestic violence in her native Honduras. The assaults on the young mother at the detention center were witnessed by at least one of the children detained with her.

There have also been health-care issues at Berks, including the failure by the detention center to provide adequate services, according to Human Rights First.

The organization was able to collect some of the letters women detained at Berks wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with ICE’s response to their concerns. One woman, detained at Berks for four months, told ICE that her 5-year-old daughter had diarrhea for three weeks and that the detention center’s doctor failed to provide her child with any medication or other care. The woman asked for “adequate medication” for her daughter and for the opportunity to have her asylum case handled outside of detention. ICE’s response: “Thank you! You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country. Please use the medical department [at Berks] in reference to health related issues.”

Using family detention as a way to handle migrants, especially those fleeing violence in Central America, has been called inhumane by many, including activists, advocates, mental health specialists, and religious leaders. But the prolonged detainment of women and children at Berks is in violation of ICE’s own standards.

In June of 2015, Johnson announced a series of reforms, including measures aimed at reducing the length of family detention stays for families who had passed a protection screening. But then earlier this month, Johnson defended family detention, saying, “The department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the [Flores] settlement agreement in times of influx. And we’ve been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.”

But all of the 22 mothers on hunger strike at Berks have been in detention for months, according to the letter they sent Johnson.

There’s also the issue that in July, a federal appeals court ordered DHS to end family detention because it violates Flores v. Johnson, which determined that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed detention centers. Soon after, family detention centers scrambled to get licensed as child-care facilities (a battle they’re losing in Texas), but the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) licensed Berks to operate as a children’s delinquency center. In October 2015, PA DHS decided not to renew the license, which would have expired February 21, 2016, because the facility holds asylum-seeking families as opposed to only children, as the license permitted. Berks appealed the decision to not renew its license, and continues to operate until it receives a ruling on that appeal.

“Our argument from the start has been that we don’t think any of this is legal,” Almiron told Rewire in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “What is happening inside of Berks is illegal. I have no idea how they continue to operate. Right now, Berks does not have a license. It was revoked because the license they did have didn’t fit what they were doing. They also have prolonged detention. Women who are hunger striking have been there 360-something days, but then Jeh Johnson says it’s only 20 days. There is no accountability with DHS or ICE. There are numerous ways [DHS and ICE are] not accountable, but Berks is a prime example. There is no transparency and they can to change the law whenever they like.”

Neither DHS nor Berks responded to requests for comment from Rewire.

Advocates have expressed concerns that the women in Berks will be retaliated against by ICE and detention center employees because of their participation in the hunger strike. As Rewire reported, when women at Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former family detention center, launched a hunger strike in November 2015, participants alleged that ICE used solitary confinement and transferred hunger strikers to different facilities, moving them further from their family in the area and their legal counsel. ICE denied a hunger strike was even taking place.

In December 2015, men detained at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after a local judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers because of his “deteriorating health” due to dehydration. Advocates told Rewire force-feeding was being used as a form of retaliation.

Almiron said the hunger strikers at Berks have already been threatened by guards, who told the women that if they continue to hunger strike and they get too weak, their children will be taken away from them. The organizer said the letter the women wrote to Johnson shows their bravery, and their understanding that they are willing to take whatever risk necessary to help their children.

“Honestly, I think they’ve been retaliated against the moment they came to this country. The fact that they’re in detention is retaliation against their human survival,” Almiron said. “Retaliation happens in detention centers all the time, women are threatened with deportation for asking for medical care for their children. These women are incredibly strong. In my eyes, they’re heroes and they’re committed to this fight to end family detention, and so are we.”

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