New Research Unveils Involuntary Medical Procedures, Force-Feeding, Solitary Confinement, and Other Forms of Retaliation

WASHINGTON — A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provides for the first time an in-depth, nationwide examination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s abuse and retaliation against people who initiate hunger strikes in U.S. immigration detention to protest their conditions of confinement.

Behind Closed Doors: Abuse and Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers in U.S. Immigration Detention spotlights hunger strikes in ICE detention from 2013 to 2020, during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Informed by more than 10,000 pages of previously undisclosed documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the report covers hunger strikes by at least 1,378 people from 74 countries across 62 public and private immigration detention centers in 24 states from 2013 to 2017. Additionally, the ACLU and PHR researchers conducted six in-depth interviews with formerly detained individuals who participated in hunger strikes during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. ICE’s failure to protect detained people from the deadly virus only exacerbated the detention conditions that many hunger strikers protested.

The ACLU-PHR investigation offers an unprecedented look at the scale and scope of ICE’s cruelty and coercion against hunger strikers in immigration detention facilities. The report highlights how ICE began seeking, obtaining, and executing orders for involuntary treatment, including force-feeding, years earlier than was publicly reported. Involuntary medical procedures like force-feeding have been condemned by the American Medical Association and described as torture by international human rights groups.

“Hunger striking is a form of protest that detained people may take because they see no other options,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project and report co-author. “No one makes this decision lightly. The fact that ICE systemically responds to these strikes — which are free speech protected by the First Amendment — with coercion and violence, instead of a good faith effort to respond to the needs raised by detained people, speaks to the inherently abusive and inhumane nature of immigration detention. These abuses have continued in the shadows, without transparency, like so much of what happens in ICE detention. We hope this report can shed light on the abuse that routinely takes place and underscore the need to end this dehumanizing detention system.”

The 10,000 pages of internal ICE documents, a review of available research and reporting, and ACLU-PHR’s interviews with former hunger strikers spotlight an array of punitive and egregious practices weaponized against hunger strikers, such as:

  • Force-feeding, forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization, and other involuntary and invasive medical procedures
  • Solitary confinement without medical justification, endangering detainees’ health
  • Retaliatory deportations and transfers of hunger strikers, despite clear medical risks
  • Use of excessive force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and beatings
  • Denial of basic privileges and restricted access to water, recreation, and communication
  • Mistreatment of hunger striking parents, and plans to separate hunger striking parents from their children in family detention facilities
  • Insufficient access to language interpretation services
  • Coercive efforts to break hunger strikes that included meetings with religious leaders or consular officials
  • Threats of prosecution and deportation
  • A previously unknown force-feeding case from 2016 and government motions for involuntary, physically invasive medical procedures as early as 2012

“These grave abuses against hunger strikers were not only a hallmark of the Trump years but were also routine under the Obama administration when Joe Biden served as vice president,” said Joanna-Naples-Mitchell, U.S. researcher at PHR and report co-author. “Today, President Biden has both an obligation and an opportunity to acknowledge the abusive system that leads so many people to hunger strike. His administration should change course now by ending ICE’s cruel response to hunger strikers, heeding their urgent calls for humane treatment and release, and starting to phase out the use of immigration detention entirely.”

One former hunger striker featured in the report, Joe Mejia, whose hunger strike took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020, said:

“There was no other relief, our last option was to hunger strike. No one wants to starve, to feel their intestines move inside their body because of hunger … The housing, conditions, clothing, food, hygiene — they try to make individuals in ICE detention miserable. We are not guaranteed legal representation … They are using immigration detention as a form of punishment for immigrants … These are human lives.”

The ACLU-PHR report offers guidance to protect the health, rights, and dignity of hunger strikers in U.S immigration detention, issuing detailed policy and practice recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Congress, medical professional associations, health care providers, intergovernmental organizations, and other actors. Above all else, the ACLU and PHR call on the U.S. government to end its reliance on the dehumanizing and abusive mass immigration detention system, and instead invest in community-based social services as an alternative to detention.

The full report is online here.

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