Day 10 of hunger strike, men moved to problematic El Paso detention center, involuntary force feeding imminent

Last evening, July 17, the four asylum seekers on hunger strike at the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC) were moved to the El Paso Service Processing Center (EPSPC). This transfer is a common pattern with prolonged hunger strikes at OCPC, a facility that, in the last year, has seen more than 100 hunger strikes. At OCPC, once the health of an individual on hunger strike begins to deteriorate, ICE routinely transfers that person to EPSPC. Many of the nine asylum seeking hunger strikers who were force-fed in January-February of this year at EPSPC began hunger strikes at OCPC.

Last night’s transfer of the four asylum seekers currently on hunger strike signals that ICE is preparing to implement what it euphemistically calls “involuntary medical treatment.” This means that without their consent, the men will soon be subjected to IV injections and force-feeding. While ICE detention standards, medical protocols, and public statements assert that ICE does “does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” there are numerous indications that various forms of retaliation do occur. As 14 members of Congress pointed out in a February 7 letter sent to the director of ICE, the UN recognizes force-feeding in itself is “tantamount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN has also remarked that involuntary force-feeding if detained hunger strikers may violate the 1994 UN Convention Against Torture. The problem at EPSPC isn’t simply the troubling use of force-feeding, but the unnecessarily cruel and retaliatory way in which it was implemented.

Given prior treatment of hunger strikers at EPSPC, we are deeply concerned about the safety of the men who were transferred last evening. Based on prior experience from the hunger strikes in January-February:

  1. ICE is, or will shortly be, in the process of obtaining ex parte orders for force-feeding;
  2. the men will not be allowed to see the court order
  3. and they will be subjected to brutal forms of retaliation.

During the January-February force feeding, in a clear act of cruelty intended to make the process more painful than necessary, outdated and unnecessarily large feeding tubes were inserted into the bodies of some of the men. The tubes were inserted in a rough way that caused profuse bleeding.  

During feeding sessions, liquids were rapidly poured into the gastro-nasal tubes which caused the men to vomit repeatedly. When the men asked to have the feeding liquid poured more slowly, medical staff refused. There were additional reports of violent assaults against the frail and weakened men. At various times, EPSPC facility staff used painful wrist and finger locks, and pressure points on the neck were applied to subdue weakened men who had not eaten for months. In some cases, groups of guards would pin men down holding their arms and legs while painful “involuntary medical treatments” were applied. These assaults left visible bruises on the men’s bodies. The men were: forced to stand, frequently denied wheel chairs, and verbally berated and threatened by facility staff who used hostile vulgar language that included ethnic slurs.

During the January-February hunger strike, the conditions of detention and force-feeding were so bad that 49 members of the House of Representatives called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) to undertake an investigation of the abuses. DHS OIG interviewed the men and investigated the situation. Unfortunately, no report from that investigation has materialized. We fear the same staff responsible for the abusive treatment are still at the facility, and there is no public sign of any disciplinary actions for those who were responsible for the abuses. Given the past problems and the fact that no corrective or disciplinary actions appear to have been put in place, we are extremely concerned about the safety of the four men on hunger striker who were just transferred to EPSPC last night.

ICE can and should immediately release these four men who are on hunger strike. They are pursuing asylum, have ties to the community, are not flight risks, and pose no threat to the community. There is no reason to keep these men detained.

July 18, 2019
Media Contacts: Margaret Brown Vega and Nathan Craig

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