Immigrant advocates are trying to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from force-feeding a man detained inside of a Washington state detention center who has been on a hunger strike for nearly 30 days.
Attorneys for the hunger striker scheduled an emergency court hearing Tuesday seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) against ICE after officers in the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington allegedly threatened Viacheslav Poliakov with force-feeding. The hearing was canceled, leaving advocates concerned that the federal immigration agency is attempting to move forward with force-feeding the detainee without allowing his legal counsel to intervene.
“It is my understanding that canceling a hearing like this is not a normal occurrence,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokesperson for the undocumented-led immigrant rights group, NWDC Resistance. “We told the people on hunger strike we would do our best to protect them on every level possible and that included being able to move forward with this hearing. The hearing wasn’t denied or postponed, it was canceled. We are not being given the chance to protect people who have chosen to utilize their freedom of speech through hunger strike.”
An estimated 60 people in NWDC launched their hunger strike on August 21 in solidarity with those participating in the national prison strike and calling for the abolishment of “prison slavery.” The hunger strike has continued, with detained people joining at different periods and reports of people striking for more than 20 days, but Poliakov has continued the strike since it first launched and the TRO was being sought in his case because he is at “imminent risk” of being force-fed by federal immigration authorities, according to advocates.
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The Russian immigrant has told advocates he will refrain from eating until detainees have access to better medical care and he is released, allowing him to fight for asylum from the outside. Poliakov has been detained at NWDC since April 3 and was placed in removal proceedings on April 25. On August 30, he was ordered removed from the United States and has until October 1 to file an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, according to court documents obtained by Rewire.News.
Villalpando told Rewire.News that Poliakov could not stand on his own during his last court hearing on August 30, requiring assistance because he had not eaten in eight days. As of September 19, Poliakov has been on hunger strike for 27 days.
A lawsuit was filed last week by the Whatcom Civil Rights Project and the Law Office of Edward S. Alexander, P.S. requesting the court grant a TRO to stop ICE from “threatening hunger strikers with force-feeding, solitary confinement, and segregation,” according to a press release from NWDC Resistance. On September 6, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington attorney, Enoka Herat, also sent a warning letter to the NWDC warden and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, Annette L. Hayes, after detainees participating in the hunger strike reported to advocates that ICE agents were threatening to get a court order that would allow them to force-feed hunger strikers.
“Detainees in ICE custody have the right to engage in protected First Amendment speech, including participation in hunger strikes,” the letter read. “Detainees also have the right to make informed decisions about their own health care when engaging in hunger strikes.”
While yesterday’s hearing was canceled, attorneys representing the hunger striker received a legal document filed by ICE. Rewire.News has seen a portion of the document, where the agency notes, “Courts in this District, including this Court, have granted orders on at least six occasions.” While ICE says these cases are “filed under seal due to the sensitive personal and medical information involved,” Villalpando said this is a reference to six court orders in which ICE was allowed to impose involuntary medical monitoring, involuntary hydration, or involuntary feeding.
“This is very open to interpretation. It can mean that ICE forced someone to hydrate or that ICE was successful in ordering someone to be force-fed through a tube,” Villalpando said. “We don’t know when these six cases were or who the people were, but for me, it’s a very alarming revelation. To my previous knowledge, there have been no force-feedings in detention centers or on U.S. soil, but maybe I was wrong.”
While ICE has denied it retaliates against detainees, there are documented cases of the agency moving to force-feed hunger strikers. In December 2015, after nationwide hunger strikes were launched on the eve of Thanksgiving as a part of “Freedom Giving,” a national movement to bring awareness to the inhumane treatment of immigrants in detention, judges in several districts signed off on the force feeding of hunger strikers. Detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after hearing that a district judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers.
Also in December 2015, a U.S. district judge ordered doctors at the Krome Processing Center in Miami, Florida to force-feed ten Bangladeshi men who had been on hunger strike for more than 20 days. The threat of being force-fed through nasal-gastric tubes was enough to end the hunger strike.
In court documents filed by ICE in response to the request for the TRO, Drew Bostock, ICE’s assistant field office director at the Seattle field office, reported he was made aware Poliakov was hunger striking on August 22. When a detainee launches a hunger strike and misses nine consecutive meals, ICE’s local field office must be notified by detention center officials. Bostock said he had never spoken to Poliakov and asserted, “I have not threatened to put a tube down Detainee Poliakov’s throat.”
ICE told Rewire.News in an emailed statement: “ICE will only administer involuntary medical treatment after securing a court order. ICE is unable to provide further comment on pending litigation.”
Villalpando told Rewire.News she’s concerned about the health of detained people after a “toxic” fire erupted less than a mile from NWDC. The fire blazed for 12 hours after lithium-ion batteries inside a 50-foot pile of scrap metal at Simon Metals spontaneously combusted, with “unhealthy levels” of “toxic smoke” harming the air quality and causing Tacoma residents “headaches, nausea, and watering eyes,” according to local news reports. The Tacoma Fire Department advised people to stay indoors and avoid inhaling the toxic fumes. But detainees inside NWDC were not made aware of the fire by ICE or GEO Group, the private prison company contracted to run the operations at the detention center.
Detained people learned of the toxic fire by advocates with NWDC Resistance.
“This is why people hunger strike. The is the perfect example. There is a lack of safety and concern for the lives of the people ICE and companies like GEO oversee,” Villalpando said. “People weren’t even told of this fire that could give them serious health issues. They were not told they may need to evacuate if the fire spread—and the fire was less than one mile away. No one who is detained by ICE is safe.”