A man held at the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats was beaten by a guard and put into solitary confinement after going on a hunger strike, according to a legal action filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington chapter filed a request for an injunction Friday on behalf of Jesus Chavez Flores, 34, a Mexican national who has been held at the facility since December. The injunction seeks to prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Geo Group from holding Chavez in solitary confinement for expressing his right to free speech.
Chavez was among 120 immigrants at the facility who took part in a hunger strike earlier this month to protest conditions at the facility, which is run by the for-profit Geo Group on behalf of ICE.
“I participated in the hunger strike because I've seen the injustices that people here in detention have faced,” Chavez said in a statement released by the ACLU. “And for taking peaceful action to protest injustice, I have been hit, injured and unfairly punished.”
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley declined to comment on the requested injunction. Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the company “strongly denies” the allegations and deferred further comment to ICE.
Northwest Detention Center detainees held a hunger strike starting Feb. 7 to air grievances with the quality of the food they receive, as well as the $1 per day detainees make while working at the facility as cooks, janitors or laborers.
Detainees generally are given 72 hours to protest by not eating before they are considered to be on a hunger strike, at which point they are held in isolation in the medical department and offered medical treatment. If the detainees decline that medical treatment, ICE then can petition the courts to begin involuntary treatment.
After skipping only one meal, a guard known for being hostile to detainees incorrectly accused Chavez of running the hunger strike in his wing of the facility, the lawsuit states. The guard choked another detainee, then punched Chavez in the eye. Chavez has suffered from blurred vision since then and cannot properly open his eye, but he has not been allowed adequate medical treatment, according to the lawsuit.
Chavez has been held in isolation since Feb. 10 when a guard accused him of trying to ferment apples inside a plastic bag to make alcohol, the suit states. He asked guards to review the security-camera footage to show who had placed the contraband in his belongings but was rebuffed.
Instead, Chavez was given 20 days in isolation, where he is held for 23 hours each day and allowed to shower every other day, the suit states.
“The decision to place Mr. Chavez in solitary confinement was made by GEO Group administrators, with the approval of ICE supervisors and without following required procedures,” the ACLU said in a news release. “His disciplinary hearing was held without Mr. Chavez receiving written notification in Spanish of charges against him, and without him being present or having a chance to speak.”
Chavez’s wife reported the guard’s assault on him to Tacoma police, who sent an officer to the facility to investigate on Feb. 14, the suit says. A request for information from the report from Tacoma police was declined, and The News Tribune has submitted a public records request for that report.
“To request phone calls or medical attention, he must fill out a form in English — a language he cannot read or write — without assistance,” the ACLU release states. “Cruelly, Mr. Chavez also cannot see the form well enough to fill out a request to get the very medical treatment he would need to address his vision, which has been blurry ever since the assault.”