A hunger strike is currently taking place at two facilities run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in California. The protest began on February 16 with over 80 participants, some of whom dropped out as their bodies started to falter. Currently, around 45 detainees are still participating in the hunger strike, which is unfolding at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and the Golden State Annex. Both facilities are operated by the private prison and contracting company GEO Group. Cruz Martinez, a 22-year-old detainee, has committed to carrying out his hunger strike “until I drop”. Martinez says he was pushed to protest by the harrowing conditions and bevy of fees that make life untenable inside the facilities, especially when paired with what he calls “slavery wages” of $1 a day.
The protesters have one goal: release from the facilities. In a complaint filed on February 23, civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Asian Law Caucus (ALC), stated that GEO Group has punished protest participants with restricted access to recreation and visitation, excessively invasive pat-downs, and time in solitary confinement. Martinez also accused staff at Golden State Annex of mocking hunger strikers, calling some of them overweight and suggesting they would benefit from the lack of food.
In response to questions from Al Jazeera, GEO Group said the claims were “baseless allegations, which are part of a longstanding radical campaign to attack ICE’s contractors” and that it had a “zero-tolerance policy with respect to staff misconduct”. At ICE facilities like Golden State Annex and Mesa Verde, work programmes, which ICE says are voluntary, pay detained people $1 per day for tasks like sanitation, laundry duty, and maintenance. Martinez told Al Jazeera that such wages feel like “legalised slavery”.
In a 2021 lawsuit against GEO Group, Michael Childers, a professor of labour education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, testified that the company saved about $26.7m from 2011 to 2019 by using detained immigrants as labourers instead of hiring outside workers, whom they would have had to compensate with higher wages. Andrew Free, a former immigration lawyer who worked on previous cases against GEO Group, told Al Jazeera that an “atmosphere of deprivation” is common in the company’s facilities, creating conditions where detainees feel pressured to work.
Attempts to change the labour system have sputtered. In June, a bill that would have forced California to pay imprisoned labourers the minimum wage stalled in the state Senate after Governor Gavin Newsom said the change would cost billions of dollars. In February, State Assembly member Lori Wilson introduced a bill called the End Slavery in California Act, which would remove a stipulation in the state constitution that bans involuntary servitude except as a form of punishment. Several states have enacted similar measures, but previous efforts to do so in California have run up against opposition from law enforcement organisations and critics who argue imprisoned labourers are an economic boon to the state.
Even if it were to pass, Wilson’s bill would not apply to immigrant detention facilities, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, including those operated by private companies such as GEO Group. Efforts to end the use of private, for-profit prisons and immigration detention centres have likewise failed to succeed. In 2019, California passed a bill to ban them, but GEO Group filed a legal challenge against the law. A federal court ultimately struck the measure down in September. US Court of Appeals Judge Jacqueline Nguyen wrote that because ICE was largely reliant on private companies to operate California’s detention facilities, the law would have forced the agency to “adopt an entirely new approach in the state”.
For Martinez, conditions at facilities like Golden State Annex serve as a warning about the problems that stem from putting jailed immigrants into the custody of for-profit companies. “GEO is a billion-dollar company, and they’re paying us $1 a day,” he said. “They’re getting rich off of us.” The hunger strike is taking place as California debates issues involving incarcerated labour and the role of private companies like GEO Group in the state’s prisons and immigrant detention centres.