Inmates in a South Texas detention facility began a series of staggered hunger strikes in January, hoping for better conditions and fewer transfers, as advocates pleaded for the federal government to come through on failed promises to reform the immigrant-detention system. Those failings, they argue, prompted inmates at the facility, which sits less than 50 miles from Harlingen, to refuse food in protest of what they allege is mental and physical abuse, lack of medical care and near-nil access to legal resources.
The government said on Friday that only two prisoners remain on what it calls “voluntary fasting” at the Port Isabel Detention Center. But the inmates have staggered their fasts, advocates of detention reform say, so that someone fasting this week might be replaced next week by another protester. Advocates allege that hundreds of inmates have taken part since the strike's inception to protest a detention system steeped in failure, secrecy and alleged human rights abuses.
In an report released last year, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowleged the need to overhaul the current detention management system, especially as it relates to medical care of its inmates, alternatives to detention programs and the process by which inmate records are maintained in case of a transfer. DHS and ICE have identified their shortcomings, says Silky Shah, the organizing and outreach coordinator for Detention Watch Network, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group. But, she says, the government appears content to ignore the problems.
“It’s very clear that ICE doesn’t know what it’s doing,” she says. “The system is in crisis — it’s broken. They literally said they don’t have a risk-assessment tool. And they have no idea who they are holding. They don’t know who is inside.”
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