Prison hunger strikes are a last, and often the only possible, resort for imprisoned people protesting their unbearable living conditions and fates. These strikes are almost always about something more than just a specific demand. They are usually a fight for respect and dignity, an assertion of resistance. For imprisoned people, going on a hunger strike is an attempt to communicate their struggle to communities beyond the prison walls.
In almost all cases, prison hunger strikes are meet increased repression.
A US federal judge recently gave workers at the Steward Detention Center in Georgia permission to restrain and force-feed a hunger striking detainee. The 61-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, Vitaly Novikov, had been on a month-long hunger strike, protesting his imminent deportation, which he feared could cost him his life. He was demanding to be released from detention immediately.
Steward detention officer Alejandro Hernandez said that force-feeding was necessary to keep Novikov alive because his death would “seriously affect” Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ability to maintain order at the facility. The official also said he feared Novikov’s action might spur more hunger strikes (pdf) “in attempts to manipulate the staff in efforts to gain various benefits and privileges,” including release.
This is the same rationale the US government used when it went to court last year to try to get an order to force-feed Alaa Yasin, a Palestinian hunger striker at Stewart who was protesting his prolonged illegal detention. In that case, the court turned down the request.
The government obviously fears losing control of the facility. And they have a good reason to, in light of the horrendous conditions. For example, on May 15, another detained immigrant at Stewart, Jean Jimenez-Joseph, 27, was found unresponsive after spending 19 days in solitary confinement. ICE classified the death as a suicide.
Jimenez-Joseph’s tragic death came on the heels of a recent report, Imprisoned Justice: Inside Two Georgia Immigration Detention Centers (pdf), released by Project South and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, which shines light on the deplorable conditions at Stewart and the Irwin County Detention Center. As the report – the product of a year-long investigation – demonstrated, these facilities are rife with human rights abuses, including the rampant use of solitary confinement, minimal access to mental healthcare, and inedible food.
In recent years, there have been many hunger strikes at Stewart and other immigration detention facilities across the United States.
In April, hundreds of people detained at the Northwest Detention Center launched a hunger strike that lasted weeks. Soon after the launch of the hunger strike, ICE and the GEO Group, the corporation that runs the facility, retaliated by transferring some of the detainees to a jail in Oregon. Despite this move, the strike kept going and resistance grew, both inside the detention centre and outside.
In June, a number of detainees launched a hunger strike at the Adelanto detention facility in California also run by GEO Group. They did so after guards violently assaulted them for putting forward a letter of grievances. Dozens of detained immigrant women also joined the hunger strike in Adelanto for one day.
Instead of addressing the demands of the imprisoned immigrants who are putting their bodies on the line, the government is resorting to tactics such as putting them in solitary confinement or attempting to force-feed them.
Following Israel’s lead
The repressive tactics used in US detention facilities are reminiscent of those long used by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) to suppress and silence prisoners’ struggles.
In Israel, 1,500 Palestinian prisoners just ended a hunger strike last month. Even though force-feeding hunger striking detainees has been defined as a form of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Israel has a law permitting prison staff to implement this procedure. But during last month’s strike, Israeli authorities did not resort to this extreme procedure, probably because the Israeli Medical Association has called on Israeli physicians not to participate in force-feeding.
The Israeli government’s recent reluctance to use force-feeding might also be rooted in its fears about the Palestinian population’s possible reaction. Palestinians view their prisoners as symbols of resistance and they still remember how several of them died as a result of being force-fed in the 1970s and 80s.
But even if they did not resort to force-feeding, Israeli authorities used the threat of force-feeding alongside other harsh repression tactics to end the strike.
Hunger strikers were prevented from meeting with their lawyers, denied family visits, suffered repressive raids and invasive body searches by prison guards. They were transferred from prison to prison and had their personal belongings confiscated – including the salt that they put in water to stay alive. Strike leaders were all put into solitary confinement. Israel’s Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan called these protest leaders “terrorists” and “murderers” with whom “you can’t negotiate”.
After 40 days, many of the 1,500 hunger strikers were hospitalised and many of them took weeks to physically recover.
Palestinian prisoners called their strike a “Strike of Freedom and Dignity” and they insisted that it be seen as part of the national liberation struggle. Their strike was supported by tens of thousands of people – not only in Palestine, but around the world – who fasted in solidarity or posted videos of themselves drinking salt water, the only sustenance the prisoners allowed themselves. There were solidarity tents across Palestine, in addition to several one-day general strikes and frequent clashes with both the colonial Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority police, in response to the prisoners’ call for “days of rage”.
Hunger-striking immigrants in US detention centres have also received community support. With daily rallies and solidarity hunger strikes, resistance has moved outside the prison walls.
As long as there is mass incarceration in the US and Israel, there will be hunger strikes of resistance. And as the US and Israeli governments increasingly use similar tactics of repression to clamp down on prisoners’ protests and the broader liberation movements, social justice movements in the US and Palestine will also connect and support each other. We have already witnessed this solidarity when the Black Lives Matter movement sent delegations to Palestine in 2015 and in the summer of 2016 and when the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement was endorsed by the Vision for Black Lives.
Azadeh Shahshahani is legal and advocacy director with Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild.
Audrey Bomse is co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s Palestine Subcommittee. She worked for seven years in Palestine as a human rights attorney, concentrating on the issues of Palestinian prisoners and torture by Israel.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.