Los Angeles, California – “Until I drop.” That’s how long 22-year-old Cruz Martinez says he is committed to carrying out his hunger strike against the conditions at immigration detention centres in the United States.
Martinez is one of about 45 detained people participating in a hunger strike unfolding at two facilities run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in California: the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and the Golden State Annex. Both are operated by the private prison and contracting company GEO Group.
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It has been nearly two weeks since Martinez last ate, a fact the sharp pangs in his stomach remind him of constantly.
But Martinez told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call that he was pushed to protest by the harrowing conditions and bevy of fees that make life untenable inside the facilities, especially when paired with what he calls “slavery wages” of $1 a day.
“The rotten food, the high commissary prices, the long waits for medical treatment — we got tired of it and decided we were going to raise our voice,” Martinez said. “Most of us believe this is our last chance to demand dignity and respect.”
The protest is taking place as California debates issues involving incarcerated labour and the role of private companies like the GEO Group in the state’s prisons and immigrant detention centres.
The hunger strike began on February 16 with more than 80 participants, some of whom dropped out as their bodies started to falter. But the former participants noted they remain in solidarity with their fellow strikers.
The latest protest follows a labour strike in April when detainees refused to participate in work programmes they consider unfair.
While Martinez said low wages, poor conditions and the high cost of things like phone calls fuelled the decision to launch a hunger strike, the protesters ultimately have one goal: release from the facilities.
“I’ve never been so hungry in my life,” said Martinez, who had lived in Houston, Texas, since 2015. “But we want to be with our families.”
In a complaint filed on February 23, civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Asian Law Caucus (ALC), stated that GEO Group has punished protest participants with restricted access to recreation and visitation, excessively invasive pat-downs and time in solitary confinement.
“GEO has engaged in blatant retaliation,” said Aseem Mehta, an ALC lawyer involved in the complaint. “But the strikers are clear: They will continue until they no longer can.”
Martinez also accused staff at Golden State Annex of mocking hunger strikers, calling some of them overweight and suggesting they would benefit from the lack of food.
In response to questions from Al Jazeera, GEO Group said the claims were “baseless allegations, which are part of a longstanding radical campaign to attack ICE’s contractors” and that it had a “zero-tolerance policy with respect to staff misconduct”.
At ICE facilities like Golden State Annex and Mesa Verde, work programmes, which ICE says are voluntary, pay detained people $1 per day for tasks like sanitation, laundry duty and maintenance.
Martinez told Al Jazeera that such wages feel like “legalised slavery”.
In a 2021 lawsuit against GEO Group, Michael Childers, a professor of labour education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, testified that the company saved about $26.7m from 2011 to 2019 by using detained immigrants as labourers instead of hiring outside workers, whom they would have had to compensate with higher wages.
Andrew Free, a former immigration lawyer who worked on previous cases against GEO Group, told Al Jazeera that an “atmosphere of deprivation” is common in the company’s facilities, creating conditions where detainees feel pressured to work.
“If your daily meals don’t have enough nutrition or are of very poor quality, you have to buy food from the commissary to have a full diet,” he said. “The choice to work for $1 a day or face deprivation of basic necessities is not truly voluntary.”
The use of jailed workers to perform tasks such as maintenance and sanitation is common throughout the US criminal justice system, and social justice advocates have portrayed the practice as exploitative.
But attempts to change the labour system have sputtered. In June, a bill that would have forced California to pay imprisoned labourers the minimum wage stalled in the state Senate after Governor Gavin Newsom said the change would cost billions of dollars.
And in February, State Assembly member Lori Wilson introduced a bill called the End Slavery in California Act, which would remove a stipulation in the state constitution that bans involuntary servitude except as a form of punishment.
Several states have enacted similar measures, but previous efforts to do so in California have run up against opposition from law enforcement organisations and critics who argue imprisoned labourers are an economic boon to the state.
Even if it were to pass, Wilson’s bill would not apply to immigrant detention facilities, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, including those operated by private companies such as GEO Group.
Efforts to end the use of private, for-profit prisons and immigration detention centres have likewise failed to succeed. In 2019, California passed a bill to ban them, but GEO Group filed a legal challenge against the law.
A federal court ultimately struck the measure down in September. US Court of Appeals Judge Jacqueline Nguyen wrote that, because ICE was largely reliant on private companies to operate California’s detention facilities, the law would have forced the agency to “adopt an entirely new approach in the state”.
For Martinez, conditions at facilities like Golden State Annex serve as a warning about the problems that stem from putting jailed immigrants into the custody of for-profit companies.
“GEO is a billion-dollar company, and they’re paying us $1 a day,” he said. “They’re getting rich off of us.”