Los Angeles, California – “Until I drop.” That’s how long 22-year-old Cruz Martinez says he’s determined to carry out his hunger strike against conditions in immigrant detention centers in the United States.
Martinez is one of about 45 detainees participating in a hunger strike taking place at two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in California: the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and the Golden State Annex. Both are operated by the private prison and contractor company GEO Group.
It’s been almost two weeks since Martinez last ate, a fact the sharp pain in his stomach constantly reminds him of.
But Martinez told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call that he was forced to protest the harrowing conditions and high fees that make life in the facilities unsustainable, especially when combined with what he calls “slavery wages” of $1 a day.
“The spoiled food, the high prices from the commissars, the long wait for medical treatment – we got tired of it and decided we were going to raise our voices,” Martinez said. “Most of us believe this is our last chance to command dignity and respect.”
The protest comes as California debates issues related to inmate labor and the role of private companies like the GEO Group in state prisons and immigrant detention centers.
The hunger strike began on February 16 with more than 80 participants, some of whom dropped out because their bodies began to falter. But the former participants noted that they remain in solidarity with their fellow strikers.
The latest protest follows a labor strike in April when detainees refused to participate in work programs they consider unfair.
While Martinez said low wages, poor conditions and the high cost of things like phone calls fueled the decision to go on a hunger strike, the protesters ultimately have only one goal: release from the facilities.
“I’ve never been so hungry in my life,” Martinez said, who has lived in Houston, Texas since 2015. “But we want to be with our families.”
In a complaint civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Asian Law Caucus (ALC), filed Feb. 23, stated that GEO Group has punished protest participants with limited 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 attorney involved in the complaint. “But the strikers are clear: they will continue until it is no longer possible.”
Martinez also accused Golden State Annex staff of mocking hunger strikers, calling some of them overweight and suggesting they would benefit from the lack of food.
Responding to questions from Al Jazeera, GEO Group said the allegations were “baseless allegations, part of a long-running radical campaign to attack ICE’s contractors” and that it had a “zero tolerance policy regarding staff misconduct”.
At ICE facilities such as Golden State Annex and Mesa Verde, work programs, which ICE says are voluntary, pay inmates $1 per day for tasks such as sanitation, laundry and maintenance.
Martinez told Al Jazeera that such wages feel like “legalized slavery.”
In a 2021 lawsuit against GEO Group, Michael Childers, a professor of labor education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, testified that the company saved about $26.7 million between 2011 and 2019 by using incarcerated immigrants as laborers instead of hiring outside workers, which they would have had to compensate with higher wages.
Andrew Free, a former immigration attorney who worked on previous cases against GEO Group, told Al Jazeera there is an “atmosphere of deprivation” in the company’s facilities, creating conditions where detainees feel compelled to work.
“If your daily meals don’t contain enough nutrition or are of very poor quality, you have to buy food from the commissary to have a complete diet,” he said. “The choice to work for $1 a day or be deprived of basic necessities is not really voluntary.”
The use of captured laborers to perform tasks such as maintenance and sanitation is common in the US criminal justice system, and social justice advocates have portrayed the practice as exploitative.
But attempts to change the labor system have failed. In Junea bill that would have forced California to pay incarcerated workers the minimum wage stalled in the Senate after Gov. Gavin Newsom said the change would cost billions of dollars.
And in February, State Assemblyman Lori Wilson introduced a bill called the End Slavery in California Act, which would remove a provision from the state constitution that prohibits involuntary servitude, except as a form of punishment.
Several states have taken similar measures, but previous attempts to do so in California have met opposition from law enforcement organizations and critics who argue that captured workers are an economic boon to the state.
Even if passed, Wilson’s bill would not apply to immigrant detention centers, which are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, including those operated by private companies such as GEO Group.
Attempts to end the use of for-profit private prisons and immigrant detention centers have also failed. In 2019, California passed a bill to ban them, but GEO Group filed a legal challenge against the law.
A federal court finally struck down the measure in September. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen of the United States Court of Appeals wrote that because ICE relied largely on private companies to operate the California detention centers, the law would have forced the agency to “adopt an entirely new approach in the state.”
For Martinez, the conditions in facilities like Golden State Annex serve as a warning sign of the problems that arise from for-profit companies taking imprisoned immigrants into custody.
“GEO is a billion-dollar company and they pay us $1 a day,” he said. “They get rich from us.”