Hunger Strikers in Central Valley Immigration Detention Facilities File Class Action Lawsuit Against ICE, GEO Group for Illegal Retaliation
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Media Contact: Kurtis Wu, 415-816-7396, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawsuit Filed on Seventh Day of Peaceful Protest Demanding Hunger Strikers’ Release from Detention and Shutdown of Facilities
SAN FRANCISCO – Five people detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, Calif., and the Golden State Annex in McFarland, Calif., have filed a class action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group, the private, for-profit prison company that owns and operates the detention centers. They allege that they and other detained people have faced retaliation, including threats of solitary confinement and bans on family visitation, for engaging in a collective hunger strike to demand their release from immigration custody and the shutdown of both facilities.
The plaintiffs—Milton Mendez, Guillermo Medina Reyes, Cruz Leandro Martinez Leiva, and two individuals referred to as “R.H.M.” and “E.O.A.R.” in court documents to protect their privacy—are among the approximately 82 detained people who declared a hunger strike on Feb. 17, 2023. They argue that retaliation against any striker violates their right to peacefully speak out against their mistreatment and violates their right to petition the government for redress of their grievances.
In the lawsuit filed on Feb. 23, 2023, plaintiffs report that, since the hunger strike began, ICE and GEO Group have harassed them by threatening to place them in solitary confinement, making the temperature of the dorms painfully cold, and taunting them with food. The strikers also say officials have denied them family visitation, access to worship services, and access to the detention center yard, among other recreational activities.
“We are hunger striking because we see the pain that everyone in here is going through. When I look at everyone and how much they believe in the fact that putting themselves through this can make a change, it gives me hope,” said plaintiff Guillermo Medina Reyes. “We are all humans. There are people here who are fathers, brothers, husbands. They deserve a real chance to fight their case and to have a chance at liberty as well. That’s why we started the strike and this lawsuit.”
Plaintiffs are represented by four members of the Mesa Verde-Golden State Annex (MV-GSA) Hunger Strike Support Coalition, a group of civil rights and legal organizations supporting the strike—ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus, Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Pangea Legal Services—as well as the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and Jenner & Block LLP.
“The people detained in these horrific detention centers have undeniable First Amendment rights to speak out against their abuse,” said the attorneys in a joint statement. “ICE detains people indefinitely under hideous living conditions, including facilities rife with black mold, while GEO Group profits from their labor by paying workers in custody $1 a day. We will do everything possible to protect their constitutional right to peacefully protest the injustice of their detention.”
The hunger strike follows years of peaceful advocacy by people detained at Mesa Verde and the Golden State Annex to demand fair wages, better conditions, and humane treatment by GEO Group staff through the filing of grievances and administrative complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It also follows a 10-month-long, ongoing refusal by some detained people to participate in the facilities’ supposedly voluntary work program, in which ICE and GEO Group rely on detained people to provide cleaning and sanitation services for only $1 a day.
In a separate lawsuit challenging the meager pay for detained workers at another immigration detention facility in Adelanto, Calif., also run by GEO Group, a court expert calculated that the private prison company has made an extra $26.7 million dollars in profit between 2011 and 2019 due to low-wage work performed by detained immigrants.
For years, peaceful protests at Mesa Verde and the Golden State Annex have been met with retaliation, as documented in complaints filed with DHS in 2021, 2022, and 2023 on behalf of detained people. The 2022 complaint prompted sixteen members of the California Congressional Delegation to send a letter to DHS regarding the allegations of disturbing conditions and retaliation. They called on DHS to shut down the facilities if the allegations prove to be true. The 2023 complaint concerns widespread reports from detained people that they have been subject to sexually abusive pat-downs in retaliation for engaging in constitutionally protected, free speech activity.
On Feb. 23, members of the MV-GSA Hunger Strike Support Coalition met with members of the California Congressional Delegation to draw attention to the strikers’ demands for release and the shutdown of Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, given ICE’s well-documented history of abuse within detention facilities nationwide, and the impunity bred by its contracts with for-profit companies like GEO Group.
The MV-GSA Hunger Strike Support Coalition consists of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, Centro Legal de la Raza, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, El Concilio Family Services, Freedom for Immigrants, Free Them All Coalition SD, Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement Sacramento Chapter, La Voz de los Trabajadores, Latino Coalition for Health Equity, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers’ Guild, Pangea Legal Services, Papeles Para Todos, and Rapid Response Network of Kern County.