January 14, 2020
At a converted prison in Jena, Lousianna, five men from India are engaged in a hunger strike. Two of the men have passed the 70 day mark and are being forcefully hydrated. The men came to the United States seeking asylum. They appeared at legal port of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum. All of this is perfectly legal, of course. But they were detained anyway. They all have family sponsors ready to receive them upon release. Nevertheless, they remain incarcerated in conditions they are protesting with their very lives. From Truthout:
Both men fear they will face violence if they are deported to India and asked volunteers to keep their names out of the press. One is 37 years old and the other is 22, and both filed asylum claims after crossing at a legal port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border before being shuffled through the nation’s vast immigration detention system.
Graffeo said the two men can no longer walk and are in wheelchairs. They could suffer organ damage or even death within a week, as many hunger strikers do not make it past 75 days.
“It’s a rapid decline at this point,” Graffeo said.
Three other men at the facility are also on strike but recently began drinking some fluids, and all five have been subjected to forced hydration over the past month after refusing to eat and drink, according to Freedom for Immigrants.
Rather than release asylum seekers on bond, the Trump administration is keeping as many as it can locked up. In Louisiana, this has meant an explosion in contracts to private companies, and local state and county jails. Overall the Trump administration has opened or signed agreements with 24 new facilities since taking office, adding 17,000 bed spaces for “civil” detention under Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. One result of this increase and the tactics employed is a dramatic increase in protests of conditions.
Hunger strikes have erupted at immigration jails nationwide as the Trump administration responded to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border with policies that prioritize incarceration, with many adults held indefinitely as they wait to see a judge. Last year, immigrant rights groups documented 14 hunger strikes at immigration jails across the country. Strikers typically protest poor conditions and medical treatment and demand their right to freedom and due process. Freedom for Immigrants has identified 1,600 hunger strikers in immigration jails since 2015.
Meanwhile, just across the border in Mississippi, five men who had been imprisoned were murdered over the last two weeks. From Mother Jones:
The recent violence began on December 29, when Terrandance Dobbins was killed in what the corrections department described vaguely as a “major disturbance” at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, and two other men there were injured. On New Year’s Eve, the lockdown began, and the department’s commissioner announced her resignation. During the first several days of the year, four more men were beaten or stabbed to death, including three at Parchman. For context, that’s almost the same number of people killed at Parchman during the eight years prior. “Things are kind of surreal at this point,” coroner Heather Burton told the Clarion Ledger of the recent deaths. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.”
Last year the Marshall Project undertook a study of Mississippi prisons, finding that the overcrowded, understaffed institutions, are the sites of enormous abuse. In a detailed study of one prison, operated under contract with the private company MTC, the warden managed the prison using gangs - and he claimed to auditors that this was common practice in the state. From the Marshall Project:
Bradley’s response to this problem, according to the audit: “he speaks with the gang lords/leaders and asks them to ‘control their men.’ If they do not control the individuals on the unit, the Warden will place the unit on lockdown,” which means prisoners are confined to their cells with no visits, no recreation, no meals in the cafeteria. Using gangs this way is just how Mississippi prisons operate, the warden said: “It ain’t right, but it’s the truth.” He told auditors that the head of the criminal investigations division at the Mississippi Department of Corrections, who was not named, had encouraged him to partner with gang leaders.
One result of the deaths, is an airing of the conditions in these prisons. Mississippi under went criminal justice reform, much as in neighboring Louisiana, in order to cut its prison budget. Though the incarceration rate initially declined following 2014 reforms, it has begun to go up again. However, the budget has not.
With fewer funds, Mississippi prisons are practically crumbling in disrepair. At Parchman, holes riddle the walls and prison doors, ceilings are collapsing, and roaches and rats run throughout the facility, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which reviewed Department of Health inspections. Many incarcerated people go about their days in the dark, since hundreds of cells now lack lights or power—a sharp decline in conditions compared with seven years ago, when all cells had electricity and lighting. Today, one building had just one shower for more than 50 prisoners, who described going weeks sometimes without a chance to wash, according to the investigation.
In addition to state budget cuts, Federal oversight of the prison ended in 2011, and conditions have fallen off dramatically since.
From Propublica's report,"The prison’s drinking water has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act dozens of times, and the Environmental Protection Agency has cited the prison’s sewage system for three years for violating the Clean Water Act, documents show. Parchman’s accreditation by the American Correctional Association, which sets standards for prisons across the country, lapsed in 2017."
Propublica also notes that in 2012, one year after federal oversight ended, an inspection found one prisoner without a mattress and twelve toilets inoperable. This year, 250 prisoners had no mattress and 68 toilets were in disrepair. The utter collapse of these conditions lies at the root of the violence. The fact that as a society we treat inmates as thrown away people, undeserving of the most basic human dignity is why these conditions are politically acceptable. It has also set the stage for the conditions in immigrant detention, where 75% of the people detained are in facilities run by prison companies, and most of the rest are in jails and state run prisons.
Of course, the poor conditions faced by immigrants in detention have been well documented and roundly criticized by pundits, candidates, and members of Congress. However, not much has been done in the policy realm to reform the system. Indeed, Trump continues to basically make conditions worse since Congress can’t find the will to stop him. As awareness of these conditions grow, we can only hope that it is accompanied by an awareness of the roots of these conditions.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world - both in absolute terms and adjusted for population. The conditions in U.S. prisons parallel conditions in immigrant detention: poor health care, limited access (to mostly privatized) mental health services, overuse of solitary confinement, abuse at the hands of guards and others who are incarcerated. Confinement, whether criminal incarceration or civil detention, employs a core set of techniques meant to dehumanize and control. We seem to know no other way. This week grueling evidence of the conditions in U.S. prisons appeared briefly above the ramparts of our collective indifference. We need to keep that awareness alive and demand change.