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ICE detainees in Tacoma reportedly on day three of hunger strike

caption: Detainees walk toward the outdoor recreation area on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.
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Detainees walk toward the outdoor recreation area on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees at Tacoma’s immigration facility are reportedly on day three of a hunger strike.

A spokesperson for the Northwest ICE Processing Center confirmed that chemical agents were used Wednesday in response to a disruption at the facility.

Detainees say they began the strike to demand better food and living conditions, and to be paid for their labor. They say up to 150 people are refusing meals.

Edgar Chavez was in a section of the facility where protesters had refused to get up from their tables. He said guards threw smoke bombs and used pepper spray on people during the first day of the food strike.

After the smoke bombs went off, Chavez said guards were getting aggressive with someone. And when he and another man got turned around in the commotion, guards pepper sprayed them.

“Se estaban poniendo agresivo con alguien, y cuando me dio la vuelta con otro señor de ayi nos pintaron con la pistola de pimenta,” he said.

Maru Mora Villalpando is an organizer with La Resistencia, which advocates for people inside the facility. She said detainees have complaints about the sanitary conditions of bathrooms and showers, they’ve also heard concerns about the lack of sufficient dental and medical care.

Chavez described a man who had suicidal ideation, and said he was ready to intervene.

GEO group is the private company contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to operate the facility. A spokesperson for GEO denied that a hunger strike is happening in the facility. The spokesperson said chemical agents were used after a group of high-security detainees barricaded themselves in a unit and blocked security cameras.

In an email to KUOW, a spokesperson for ICE said contraband was found during an inspection that morning — a black comb with a razor blade tucked into the comb's teeth.

“After careful consideration, ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] authorized non-lethal use of force following applicable guidelines to ensure the safety of all people in the facility including noncitizens and staff,” the spokesperson wrote.

After the altercation detainees were checked by medical staff, according to the ICE spokesperson, who also said guards “confirmed there were no detainees with suicidal ideation.” Chavez said the comb and razor blade were not related to his encounter with a detainee who he said was considering self harm.

Demonstrators, including supporters of La Resistencia, are organizing a protest Friday outside the Tacoma detention center.

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