By Gene Johnson
The Associated Press
SEATTLE — A guard at a privately run immigration jail beat a detainee because the man joined a hunger strike protesting conditions at the facility, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal lawsuit filed Friday.
The organization sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as the GEO Group, which operates the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
According to the lawsuit, Jesus Chavez Flores is one of more than 120 immigrant detainees at the facility who began a hunger strike Feb. 7 to protest the conditions of their confinement, including the quality of the food they are served and that the prisoners are paid just $1 per day to perform janitorial, kitchen, laundry or other work there.
After one guard falsely identified Chavez as an organizer of the hunger strike, another guard punched him in the eye to retaliate, and he’s been held in isolation — alone 23 hours per day — since Feb. 10, the ACLU said. It added that he continues to have trouble opening his eye, his vision is blurry and that his requests for medical treatment have been rebuffed.
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said the agency did not immediately have any comment about Chavez’s allegations. Pablo E. Paez with the GEO Group told The Associated Press in an email Friday that the company strongly denies the allegations.
Chavez, 34, is originally from Mexico, ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said in an email. A married father of five children in the U.S., he was arrested by Toppenish police in late December as he walked home while carrying an open beer, and he was soon transferred to ICE custody.
“I participated in the hunger strike because I’ve seen the injustices that people here in detention have faced,” Chavez said in a statement provided by the ACLU. “And for taking peaceful action to protest injustice, I have been hit, injured and unfairly punished.”
A complaint from Chavez’s wife to the Tacoma Police Department about the reported assault prompted an investigation. Officers questioned Chavez and the guards at the detention center, the ACLU said.
Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool declined to comment Friday, citing an ongoing investigation as well as the ACLU lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that GEO and ICE violated Chavez’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression by retaliating. It seeks a court order for his release from solitary confinement and barring the defendants from retaliating further.