A group of at least 10 inmates at Michigan’s only private, for-profit immigrant prison are on day five of a hunger strike to protest against what they describe as inhumane living conditions and discriminatory treatment from staff.
Letters and phone calls to advocacy groups, which have been obtained by the Advance, describe concerns from at least six prisoners at the North Lake Correctional Facility who have been participating in the strike.
All of the strikers are currently being housed in the prison’s solitary housing unit (SHU). Most are men of color, with the prison’s population being largely Latino.
The 1,800-bed North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin was met with more than one hundred protesters when it opened on Oct. 1. The prison’s owner, Florida-based GEO Group, landed a 10-year contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons earlier in 2019 that skirted around a deal blocked by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It is not connected to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In addition to claiming there’s inadequate nutrition and discriminatory treatment, inmates also describe concerns over a lack of safety measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within the prison. Although there have not yet been public reports of COVID-19 cases at the facility, incarcerated immigrants there have said they fear for their health and safety in the midst of the state’s outbreak.
J.R. Martin is a spokesperson for the advocacy group No Detention Centers in Michigan, a statewide coalition to abolish migrant incarceration in Michigan that has led protests against the North Lake Correctional Facility. They said the group has been in contact with a number of prisoners inside the facility and inmates’ family members since last month.
Martin first learned of the strike on Monday, when they received a phone call from one individual in the SHU informing them that it had begun the day before. The inmate told Martin that the food is the main sticking point, as they allege it does not meet the mandated protein requirements, and the rest of the men being housed in the SHU were being isolated there for a fight that they say they weren’t involved in.
As for COVID-19, the prisoners are “understandably anxious about it,” Martin said. Because of the conditions described, they believe it’s “just a matter of time” before the virus spreads to North Lake.
Kenneth Thomas, an inmate involved in the hunger strike who gave permission for his name to be printed, told Martin in a recorded phone call that he believes he is being “targeted” by the warden and described his conditions at the SHU as “unbelievable.”
“This place needs to be closed down. … There’s no way somebody’s supposed to live like this,” Thomas says in the call.
A media inquiry to the Federal Bureau of Prisons was not returned.
But a GEO spokesperson categorically denied the allegations, writing in an email that the notion of a hunger strike at North Lake was fabricated by “outside groups to advance politically motivated agendas.”
“We strongly reject these unfounded allegations that have been orchestrated nationally by outside groups with political agendas. There is currently no hunger strike at the North Lake Correctional Facility,” the spokesperson said.
He added that GEO has taken “comprehensive steps” at all facilities to address the risks of COVID-19, and said that “at this time, no inmates at the [North Lake] Facility have tested positive for COVID-19.”
The spokesperson added that prisoners are given adequate access to handwashing throughout the facility and are fed “high quality” meals three times per day.
Beth, the spouse of an inmate participating in the strike who asked that her last name not be published, told the Advance on Friday that her husband has now been in the SHU for three to four weeks. She pushed back on GEO’s claims that they are not aware of a hunger strike, and said the strikers have been in negotiations with the prison staff.
“They offered to give them some things if they would stop the hunger strike, so they are fully aware that they’re on strike,” Beth said, adding that the men chose to hold out until all of their demands were met.
“He said they’re mostly given just rice and beans. So it’s inadequate nutrition,” Beth said. “… And then some of the men were promised a transfer, and it hasn’t gone through.”
Beth said that her husband, who has been incarcerated for four years, is seeking a transfer to another federal prison as a result of the treatment he has experienced at North Lake. He was previously incarcerated at a federal prison that was not private, like North Lake is, and preferred it there.
Beth noted that she is also very concerned that the facility is not allowing proper access to handwashing or face masks for prisoners as COVID-19 cases continue to ramp up in Michigan.
“He said, the COs [correctional officers] are wearing the masks, but they haven’t been given any. It’s just the COs,” Beth said. “You have COs who are leaving and coming in, you have people who are in close contact with each other. And I asked him, were they given soap or wipes or anything? He said no, they have to buy their own soap.”
Beth said the Bureau of Prisons announced a 14-day lockdown on April 1 in response to the COVID-19 emergency, but this has only meant that inmates like her husband are stuck for even longer in isolation.
“We’re just really worried about our loved ones being in a place where they can’t practice social distancing, and where they’re not being treated as humans. And they’re not being given the materials they need to at least keep clean, and keep their cells clean. So we’re just worried that our loved ones … they’re gonna be victims of the COVID-19,” Beth said.
Martin said that No Detention Centers in Michigan organized a “phone zap” event on Thursday morning, in which about 40 individuals called the prison to voice their support for prisoners on the hunger strike and demand that the facility cooperate with their demands.