The Epidemic of Hunger Strikes in Immigrant Detention Centers

The Epidemic of Hunger Strikes in Immigrant Detention Centers

The Epidemic of Hunger Strikes in Immigrant Detention Centers

By one count, there have been 1,600 individuals participating in hunger strikes in the centers just since 2015. In one Louisiana center, three strikers are entering a dangerous phase.


Back in his home state of Karnal, in northern India, Ajay had a target on his back.

As a worker for a political party called Indian National Lok Dal, he was out of step with the surging Hindu nationalist sentiment that brought Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party to power in the 2014 election. Since that election, which allowed Modi to take over as prime minister, the BJP has cracked down on dissent, and Ajay was one of their victims: Members of BJP pressured Ajay to join the party in 2018, and when he refused, they attacked him.

When Ajay went to report the assault to the police, officers who were sympathetic to BJP instead threatened to lodge false charges against him. Ajay still refused to join the BJP and, that same November, he was beaten again by party members, this time more seriously, with bars and sticks. He was hospitalized and, together with his family, came to the decision that it wasn’t safe for him to stay in India. He had to flee.

On Christmas day, 2018, Ajay entered the United States via Mexico and turned himself into the Border Patrol to ask for asylum. Despite presenting evidence of his persecution, Ajay (a pseudonym—all the Indian men in detention I spoke to for this article requested I use pseudonyms due to the “severe consequences” or even death they face if they are returned to India) was denied his initial asylum claim and has been in detention ever since.

Ajay has appealed his denial to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but he is still languishing in detention. Aghast at his treatment and the lack of clarity about his future, Ajay has now been on hunger strike for over 100 days.

Prisoners and detainees have been staging hunger strikes in United States prisons and immigration detention centers for decades. In 2013, over 30,000 inmates in California prisons staged a massive hunger strike to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement. Though they raised awareness, and a change in official policy, the use of solitary confinement in California prisons continues. Mothers in Texas’s Karnes immigration detention center for women and children went on a series of strikes in 2015. Some of the women were released on bond, which the strikers saw as a victory. And in 2018 and 2019, as the detained population grew in immigrant detention centers, and as deaths in detention rose, there was an increase in hunger strikes in detention centers in multiple states, especially in the south. Freedom For Immigrants, an advocacy group that monitors conditions in immigration detention centers, has counted 1,600 individuals participating in hunger strikes just since 2015.

Ajay began his strike with four other Indian men on November 1 of last year in the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, more than two hours from Lafayette. (The Jena immigration court has one of the lowest grant rates for asylum cases in the country, with one of the Jena-based immigration judges last year granting not a single case of asylum.) After staging various shorter hunger strikes in protest of their prolonged confinement last summer, the five men coordinated and began a new hunger strike in November. One of the men has been released on bond, another has been deported, but the three others, including Ajay, continue with the hunger strike. It has been, as of publication, 104 days.

“As the Trump administration continues to expand its detention and deportation machine, particularly in Southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi, immigrants are being held in abusive conditions for longer than ever before,” Rebekah Entralgo, spokesperson for Freedom for Immigrants, told me. “When people go on hunger strike in immigrant jails and prisons, it is a last resort. They are willing to put their bodies on the line for a shot at freedom.” One of the Indian men said in a statement, “I have not eaten or drank anything and my demand is that I be set free from here and I have no other demand.”

When I reached out to ICE to ask questions about the strike of Ajay and the other men—three men in total—ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told me that there were currently six men on hunger strike in LaSalle, and 11 persons in ICE custody currently on hunger strike, just in the state of Louisiana. I asked advocates if they knew about these other hunger strikers. They did not. The eight other people, currently starving themselves for their freedom, are doing so locked up and away from the public eye.

The Indian men who went on hunger strike in LaSalle complained not only of their confinement but also of the conditions of their confinement. There was effectively no translation or interpretation services for them; the food was bad; they had little access to the outdoors; and the guards were dismissive of them or even mocked them. LaSalle also has one of the highest incident rates among immigration detention centers of complaints of sexual assault. In 2016, three men died while in custody in LaSalle.

By December, over a month into their hunger strike, ICE had applied for and received a court order to force-feed two of the Indian men on hunger strike. The men who were force-fed were restrained, had tubes stuck up their noses, and Boost shakes were poured down the tubes twice a day (Jones noted that “forcibly performing an invasive medical procedure on someone who has the mental capacity to consent or refuse that procedure has been denounced as torture and against medical ethics by Physicians for Human Rights and other international bodies”). One of the men developed an infection in his nostril, and reported extreme pain, according to Michelle Graffeo, a member of Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention who has been visiting the men every Sunday since November.

In early January, ICE officers offered to take the three men remaining on hunger strike out of solitary confinement if they started eating food again. Ajay compromised. Instead of submitting to the Boost being poured through a tube up his nose, he would drink the Boost on his own. He quickly found, however, that he was more uncomfortable, and in more pain, when he drank. He now drinks a can of Boost every couple days, and receives an IV drip for hydration three days a week, but remains on hunger strike.

Graffeo last visited Ajay on February 9, day 100 of his hunger strike. “He is in excruciating pain all the time,” Graffeo relayed to me. “He still doesn’t understand why he’s in prison.” The guards don’t make it easier, and don’t seem sympathetic, she explained. One female guard joked to Graffeo, making light of the prolonged hunger strike, “Men are so stubborn.”

As Sarah Gardiner, director of policy for Freedom for Immigrants, which has been supporting these strikers, put it in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Despite legal avenues for release and the fact that all of the men have family or close friends willing to care for them upon release, they have been detained for more than a year in facilities with extensive and well-documented histories of abuse, including overcrowding, medical neglect, sexual assault, barriers to legal access and retaliatory use of solitary confinement.”

Since the start of the strike, Ajay has lost nearly 50 pounds. Though he feels “very much pain, all of the time,” he is not allowed anything for the pain unless or until he breaks his strike. ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told me via e-mail: “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers. For their health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.”

I spoke with Catherine Jones, a doctor at Tulane University School of Medicine who met with two of the Indian men on January 31, day 92 of the hunger strike. She met with Dev, another one of the Indian men. Dev is 24 years old, but Jones described him looking like he was in his 40s. He had an unsteady gait, a very soft voice, and basically “looked like someone who was starving,” Jones said. He had been getting a single liter of fluid administered intravenously every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And though the nurses checked on the men regularly, Jones determined from medical records and interviews that medical staff were neglecting a number of treatable issues, including severe constipation (Dev complained of having a bowel movement only about once every two weeks), severe joint pain, and extreme dehydration. All of these painful symptoms are “incredibly easy to treat” through laxatives, analgesics, or other common interventions, said Jones. “They could give him more fluids,” she said, “but they are not.” She was worried that the staff was failing to respond to inmates’ medical conditions. Like Ajay, Dev had been drinking a can of Boost every few days, but also found that it caused him more pain. I asked Jones about her prognosis, and she told me she was worried that the men would die. “It could happen any day,” she said.

I spoke on the phone for a few minutes with Dev on February 10, Day 101, and asked him about the conditions. “Even one day is too long to be in detention,” he said. He said that the guards are refusing him other services in retaliation for not eating. He recently wanted to buy an envelope from the commissary to mail something to his lawyer, but they wouldn’t give it to him, not unless he started eating again. He refused.

I asked him how long he would remain on the hunger strike. “We will not stop until we are released,” he told me. “We will die one day. It’s in God’s hands when.”

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