A hunger strike at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center has come to a partial halt as detainees wait for detention center officials to fulfill their demands, one of the participating detainees told The Californian on Tuesday.
A meeting between detainees housed in Dorm C of Mesa Verde resulted in soap and paper towel dispensers being placed in the facility, said Donovan Grant, 44, who is awaiting immigration proceedings at the facility. He added detainees plan to wait for a week before possibly resuming to the strike in the hopes that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will institute more protections against the new coronavirus.
“We’re going to see if they are meeting the demands that (we) asked for,” he said in a phone interview. “We all can be more protected from the virus. They said they were going to look into it and yesterday they installed a paper towel dispensary and a soap dispensary, but they said they were going to do more.”
Detainees say they started a hunger strike last week in an attempt to get ICE to implement stricter COVID-19 measures. They say they hope to force ICE to stop bringing new people into Mesa Verde and make staff wear personal protective equipment, as well as provide hygiene products for use by the incarcerated population and test for the virus.
After Mesa Verde officials indicated some of the demands would be met, Grant said, a majority of the detainees in Dorm C chose to return to their regular meals. He added that the hunger strike had spread to Dorm D on Sunday, which was still participating on Tuesday. Although communication between the dorms is limited, he said some in the women’s dorm, which was the first dorm to begin the strike, were also still not eating regular meals.
ICE initially denied the hunger strike was taking place, but in comments to The Californian on Tuesday, spokesman Jonathan Moor acknowledged the situation at Mesa Verde was fluid.
“As I keep writing things I keep having to change things,” he said of his attempts to author statements to the media.
He mentioned ICE was looking into whether detainees who were skipping meals were purchasing items, including food, from Mesa Verde’s commissary.
“What actually constitutes a hunger strike?” he said. “Are you on hunger strike if you're still eating? That seems to defy logic.”
Grant claimed some detainees used the commissary to purchase hygiene products like bars of soap and food like ramen noodles or tuna in order to stay healthy.
In any case, Susan Beaty, lawyer for Centro Legal De La Raza, said the organization had received multiple reports that Mesa Verde administrators had threatened to cut off commissary accounts from detainees participating in the strike. She added that ICE and jailers often used commissary purchases to delegitimize a hunger strike.
"The fact that some people chose to continue eating some (extremely overpriced, and not at all nutritional) food from commissary, paid for by their own families at great cost, does not take away from the power of their actions," she wrote in an email. "The hunger strike began because Mesa Verde was not, and still is not, doing anything to keep people detained there safe."
ICE has reported 77 cases of COVID-19 among those in its custody, including 15 at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
Several detainees at Mesa Verde are elderly or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe coronavirus reactions. Last week, a federal judge ordered the release of four detainees, housed at Mesa Verde and the Yuba County Jail, over medical concerns.
Advocates have called for the release of more detainees, saying ICE is not doing enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Grant, who said he uses an inhaler and has family members in Los Angeles who have contracted the virus, agreed.
“They don’t have to be here,” he said of the medically vulnerable. “This is not a criminal case. This is a civil matter. So I think that they deserve to be at home, quarantined with their families.”