As many as 100 people held at the Port Isabel Processing Center, an immigration prison near Brownsville, Texas, have been on a hunger strike since last week to draw attention to alleged abuses in the facility and their extended detention without due process. Inmates say their complaints to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, about lack of medical attention, denial of food and other abuses have fallen on deaf ears. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the vast network of immigration prisons in Texas, many of which are privately operated by for-profit corporations. As many as a hundred people held at the Port Isabel Processing Center near Brownsville, Texas, have been on a hunger strike since last week to draw attention to alleged abuses in the facility and their extended detention without due process. Prisoners say their complaints to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, about lack of medical attention, denial of food and other abuses have fallen on deaf ears.
They began the hunger strike last Wednesday and are demanding to meet with Dora Schriro, the newly appointed special adviser on detention and removal for the Department of Homeland Security.
Independent journalist Renee Feltz interviewed one of the hunger strikers, Rama Carty, for the Texas Observer. Carty was born to Haitian parents in the Democratic Republic of Congo thirty-nine years ago today. He has lived in the United States for thirty-eight-and-a-half years and has been detained by ICE for over thirteen months after serving a two-year sentence for what he says was a wrongful drug conviction. Carty described why people at the facility are refusing to eat.
RAMA CARTY: The main reason is that the extended or prolonged detention that we’re all subjected to is unconstitutional, it’s unjust. Many of us shouldn’t be here in the first place. We’re held well past any reasonable time under the law or just any reasonable time, period. So, many of us basically have legitimate reasons for doing this. And we’re not stopping at this time.
We’re under the impression that they are looking to contain and control the situation, so that Washington does not get involved, or actually the media doesn’t start to cover this story more.
The vast majority of us do not understand immigration law or constitutional law. We don’t understand how significantly our rights are being violated. And so, people end up getting deported. And also people end up giving up and signing out and letting themselves be deported, because they cannot deal with being detained for three, four, six, ten months, twelve months, and not — through a very slow process, you know, which is designed just for that, to actually get people to sign out. So people are signing out, and also they’re getting also deported, because they’re mandatorily detained.
Previously, under the law, pretty much everyone was able to get a bond. And it’s important to understand that this is a civil process; this is not a criminal process. Anybody who’s done time prior to this, they actually are not doing time now. So, to actually not give somebody a bond, a reasonable bond, is unconstitutional. It’s a violation of our due process rights. And that’s the major issue, is that people are not given an individualized determination for bond and mandatorily detained based upon certain alleged crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the voice of Rama Carty, being held at the Port Isabel Processing Center near Brownsville, Texas, where up to a hundred people have been on a hunger strike since last week.
Today, the Southwest Workers Union and other community organizations begin a solidarity fast outside the center, demanding to be allowed in to monitor the condition of the striking prisoners.
We invited ICE onto the show today, but they didn’t respond.
For an update on the state of immigration prisons in Texas, I’m joined now here in Austin by Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob. Explain the situation, both — of Carty, in prison, it’s his birthday today, he’s thirty-nine years old, part of this hunger strike — where this prison is, who owns it.
BOB LIBAL: Well, Port Isabel is in the Rio Grande Valley, which is in the far south of Texas, and it’s one of a number of immigrant detention centers in the South Texas area. And Port Isabel happens to be one of the facilities that is government-owned and government-operated. It does have a private company that provides a lot of the employees for the facility, but it’s one of the only facilities that is actually government-operated. The vast majority of these facilities are operated by private prison corporations, such as the GEO Group or Corrections Corporation of America.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, why are people striking? Why are people on a hunger fast?
BOB LIBAL: People are protesting the conditions at the facility. And unfortunately, these are conditions that we see at a lot of these facilities: lack of medical care, lack of adequate provisions in terms of food, and then also the — what seems to a lot of detainees to be the indefinite nature of their detention. Detentions can last months and oftentimes years, especially for people who may have issues of seeking asylum in this country or have a criminal — criminal issues, that are being deported for a potential criminal violation within the country. And so, you know, what we really see are — and then, I think that the other issue is a lack of access to counsel. You know, immigrants are not guaranteed access to a lawyer, and so a lot of people fighting for their right to stay in the country here are doing so from detention without access to counsel, which makes it very difficult.
AMY GOODMAN: So this hunger strike has been going on for…?
BOB LIBAL: It’s been going on for — I think it’s been going on for about a week. And, you know, the reports say that from fifty to several hundred people are participating in it.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, today, outside the jail, there will also be a hunger strike?
BOB LIBAL: Right. The Southwest Workers Union and organizers down in the Rio Grande Valley are participating in a solidarity fast outside of the facility.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen right now?
BOB LIBAL: I think that certainly putting pressure on ICE, and as the clip from Renee Feltz indicates, Dora Schriro is the new inspector for ICE, certainly to resolve this issue immediately. But I think that there are certainly long-term steps that need to be taken to ensure that detainees have access to proper medical care, have access to counsel, have — and I think that also sort of pushing back on this massive expansion of the immigrant detention system, that we’ve seen a real explosion in the number of immigrant detention beds here in Texas and across the country, and that implementing some alternatives to detention programs that allow people who are especially in these long-term situations, where they’re detained for a number of months or even years, to be outside of the facilities while their immigration hearings are pending.
AMY GOODMAN: The riots that have taken place at GEO Group’s Reeves County Detention Center, where is this, and why are they rioting?
BOB LIBAL: Reeves County is out in West Texas, and it’s actually a Federal Bureau of Prisons-contracted facility, so — but it’s one of the FBOP facilities that is specific for immigrants. So it has people who are within the immigration — in the Bureau of Prisons system but are immigrants. And it’s operated by the GEO Group.
And the GEO Group has had a track record here in Texas in the last several years which has been absolutely horrendous. They’ve had a number of facilities that have been closed due to conditions violations, suicides, mysterious deaths, etc. And at this facility, there have been a number of mysterious deaths in the last year, and prisoners rioted both in December and then in January in protest of medical conditions and the ongoing deaths at the facility. The second riot in January burned a significant portion of the facility.
You know, and I think that the other thing about the Reeves County facility is that it is a facility where people are being — where people are in prison, Federal Bureau of Prisons custody, but a lot of these people are immigrants who are being prosecuted for illegal entry and illegal reentry into the country, something that was in the past a civil violation. It was dealt with civilly in immigration courts. So there are a lot of people who will have, due to this program of Operation Streamline, been put from the detention system into the criminal system, when before they would have been dealt with civilly in the immigration system.
AMY GOODMAN: And GEO, G-E-O, is what we formerly knew as Wackenhut?
BOB LIBAL: Right, right. Several years ago, you know, and I think what was sort of a rebranding effort, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation changed its name to the GEO Group. Although the GEO Group brand here in Texas has certainly taken some pretty serious hits in the last couple years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Bob Libal, for joining us, Texas coordinator of Grassroots Leadership. This is Democracy Now!
When we come back from break, we’re heading north to Houston. We’ll speak with an imam who is jailed in a detention facility. Stay with us.