ACLU-WA Lawsuit Seeks to Uphold Free Speech Rights of Hunger Striker at Northwest Detention Center

News Release: 
Friday, February 23, 2018
Detainee Has Suffered Severe Retaliation for Peacefully Protesting  Conditions at Detention Center
 
The ACLU of Washington today filed a lawsuit to uphold the free speech rights of an immigrant detainee at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma who has suffered severe retaliation from NWDC authorities because he participated in a hunger strike at the facility.   
 
In early February, plaintiff Jesus Chavez Flores was assaulted by a NWDC guard without provocation, resulting in an eye injury that has left Chavez with blurred vision, serious pain, and difficulty opening his eye.  NWDC authorities also ordered that Mr. Chavez be imprisoned in solitary confinement based on false disciplinary charges. Since Feb. 10, Chavez has spent 23 hours a day in an isolation cell and is permitted to shower only three times a week.
 
The lawsuit seeks a Temporary Restraining Order to bar Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO Group from retaliating against Mr. Chavez for exercising his free speech rights and to gain his release from solitary confinement. The GEO Group is the nation’s second-largest for-profit private prison company – it operates the NWDC for ICE. The suit further seeks a declaration that Defendants violated Mr. Chavez’s constitutional rights. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Tacoma.
 
“Mr. Chavez exercised his First Amendment right to freedom of speech by participating in a peaceful hunger strike to protest conditions of confinement at the detention center. This retaliation is a clear violation of his rights, and part of a nationwide pattern of intimidation and retaliation under the Trump administration,” said Eunice Cho, ACLU of Washington Staff Attorney.
 
More than 120 immigrants housed at the NWDC began a hunger strike on February 7, 2018 to protest conditions at the facility. Detainees sought to raise issues including the food they receive and the wage of one dollar per day paid to them for cooking, cleaning, and otherwise maintaining the center—others, including the Washington state Attorney General, have sued the GEO Group and ICE over the wage issue.
 
“I participated in the hunger strike because I've seen the injustices that people here in detention have faced. And for taking peaceful action to protest injustice, I have been hit, injured and unfairly punished,” said Mr. Chavez.
 
After only one mealtime of refused food, Mr. Chavez was singled out (incorrectly) as being the leader of the hunger strike. One guard widely known to be especially aggressive shoved detainees, choked another detainee by the neck, and then punched Mr. Chavez in the eye.  Although Mr. Chavez has since been unable to open his eye properly and continues to have blurred vision, Defendants have denied him appropriate medical care.
 
On February 10, a guard accused Mr. Chavez of possessing a bag with fermented apples and water, to be used to make alcohol. Mr. Chavez urged the guard to review security camera footage for evidence of someone else placing the contraband in his property. The guard instead summarily placed Mr. Chavez in the restricted housing unit – i.e., solitary confinement.   
 
Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez’s wife had reported the assault to the Tacoma Police Department, who sent an officer to NWDC to investigate. Only a few hours later, Mr. Chavez was informed that he would be placed in disciplinary segregation for 20 days, charged with Adulteration of Food or Drink.
 
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.  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. 

Mr. Chavez has suffered greatly as a result of Defendants’ retaliation.  His hands and feet are shackled on the few occasions when he is permitted to leave the isolation cell. To request phone calls or medical attention, he must fill out a form in English – a language he cannot read or write – without assistance.  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.

Support for the hunger strikers has been organized by Northwest Detention Center Resistance, a grassroots organization which for many months has had a presence outside the immigration prison. “Northwest Detention Center Resistance has fought for the dignity and human rights of detained people. Their efforts have been invaluable to bringing attention to the stories and voices of detained people,” said Enoka Herat, ACLU-WA Police Practices and Immigrant Rights Counsel.

Representing the plaintiff are ACLU-WA Legal Director Emily Chiang and Staff Attorney Eunice Cho.