A group of roughly 20 immigrant detainees being held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a privately run facility in the Dalles will go on hunger strike today, according to a clergyman working with the inmates.
Rev. Richard “Red” Stevens tells the Mercury inmates being held at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility (NORCOR) are protesting conditions at the facility, and pushing for better access to attorneys and clergy members.
“This is about justice, is what it’s about,” said Stevens, who said he is planning a hunger strike in sympathy with the detainees inside. Another local pastor, Rev. John Boonstra, also reports a looming strike.
Meanwhile, NORCOR’s administrator, Bryan Brandenburg, says there’s no hunger strike at this point, and no issue with his facility’s conditions.
“Don’t print that there’s a hunger strike,” Brandenburg said, laughing. “They have to miss five meals and not be eating commissary” in order for an action to be considered a hunger strike, he says.
Stevens, a pastor in the Dalles, says inmates are angry about conditions inside the four-county jail, high costs for phone charges, and the perception that the jail administration is preventing attorney and clergy visitations.
Stevens said an attorney and interpreter were ordered out of NORCOR earlier this week because the interpreter is a member of the group Gorge ICE Resistance.
Brandenburg says that the jail’s policy is clear: Interpreters have to show certification that they’re an interpreter on their first visit. “Once we get to know them it’s not a big deal,” he said.
NORCOR, is one of only two corrections facilities in Oregon that holds ICE detainees. Brandenburg said there were 24-such detainees inside as of Wednesday.
The issue of holding detainees at NORCOR—which numerous critics see as a clear violation of Oregon’s long-standing “sanctuary” law—has become a hot button issue in recent months. In May, six detainees launched a six-day hunger strike demanding improved living conditions, including a microwave and access to music.
In September, the ACLU of Oregon threatened a lawsuit over what it calls “inhumane” conditions in the jail and the Democratic Party of Oregon approved a resolution that says NORCOR is “in violation of basic principles of human rights.”
Meanwhile, members of the Gorge ICE Resistance protest regularly outside the jail. The group issued a press release announcing the hunger strike Wednesday afternoon, and explaining it like so:
As a result of expensive phone calls, no personal visits allowed and the remote location of the jail the detainees are distanced from support systems which provide moral support, legal counsel and other vital services when they are needed most. Detainees have expressed the need for many improvements including better food, cheaper commissary items (foods and toiletries including feminine hygiene products which must be purchased), cheaper phone calls, personal visitation with family and more books in the library.
ICE standards for handling hunger strikes call for medical checks and possible mental health treatment for detainees after 72 hours, which could present staffing challenges for the jail as soon as this weekend.
Brandenburg said that NORCOR has mental health staff on site on weekdays and medical staff on site seven days a week. He says that after three days, medical and mental health staff will evaluate hunger strikers, but that procedures require informed consent by the individual and may be refused.
Solea Kabakov, with, Gorge ICE Resistance says the group is planning a large demonstration outside the jail this Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m.
“They plan to do a five-day hunger strike,” Kabakov said. “It’s been six months since they first enacted a hunger strike at NORCOR, and they have not seen enough improvement. Microwaves is the only thing the jail’s followed through on; no other improvements have been made.”
This story was first published in the Portland Mercury.