Immigrant detainees on hunger strike in RI

Demand to be released because of coronavirus

OVER 60 IMMIGRANT detainees at a federal detention center in Rhode Island are on their fourth day of a hunger strike, demanding to be released due to concerns over the coronavirus spread.

According to recorded conversations between two male detainees at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and their attorneys, the hunger strike grew out of concerns that overcrowded conditions at the facility make it impossible to practice proper social distancing. The attorneys asked that their clients not be identified.

Some of those participating in the hunger strike include people with cardiac issues and lung cancer, along with other pre-existing conditions that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“They made a few changes, they gave us one bar of ivory soap apiece and they started spraying bleach once every night on the railings and the showers, saying that’s the way they are gonna remedy the situation with corona,” said one detainee in a recording from Monday. “People are very scared. They are watching the TV seeing people dying every day and we cannot practice social distancing.”

The detainees said a nurse has been making rounds checking on those participating in the strike. They say 62 people have refused to eat at all, and 69 are participating on some level. The detainees are saying that, given the current circumstances, they are not a flight risk and wish to be released on bond or through parole.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is the authority detaining the immigrants, said Tuesday afternoon that it’s “inaccurate to describe this as a “hunger strike,” since detainees still have access to and are obtaining food via the facility’s commissary regularly.”‘ Spokesman John Mohan acknowledged that multiple detainees have recently refused “facility-provided meals.” Mohan said that ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers, and that detainees are told by medical staff of the negative health effects of not eating.

Immigrant detainees at Wyatt are there on civil immigration offenses, and many were detained in Massachusetts, and have ongoing court hearings at Boston’s regional immigration court. Others go to Hartford’s immigration court in Connecticut.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Prison officials at Wyatt have not responded to requests for comment. As of March 24, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 at Wyatt.

At the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth, at least 10 ICE detainees have been released, many with no prior convictions or even pending charges, through a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates by Lawyers for Civil Rights. Judge William Young is considering the release of more detainees as part of an ongoing lawsuit