CLS and ACLU Protect Detainees’ Free Speech Rights at the Northwest Detention Center

News Release: 
Monday, May 12, 2014

Contact: La Rond Baker, ACLU, 206-624-2184 or Melissa Lee, CLS, 206-287-8612

Today, the ACLU of Washington (ACLU) and Columbia Legal Services (CLS) voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit after successfully getting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release hunger striking detainees from solitary confinement at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington.  The ACLU and CLS had filed this lawsuit on April 2, 2014 to prohibit ICE from retaliating against detainees at the NWDC who engage in First Amendment protected activities by placing them in solitary confinement.

Problems first arose after several hundred immigration detainees at the NWDC went on hunger strikes on March 7, 2014 to express concerns with national immigration policies and to raise awareness about the conditions of their confinement.  Their grievances about conditions at the NWDC included poor food quantity and nutritional quality, $1.00 per day wages for work performed at the NWDC, and the lack of access to bond hearings.

On March 24, 2014, some detainees started new hunger strikes.  On March 27, 2014, ICE placed hunger striking detainees in solitary confinement in retaliation for participation in First Amendment protected speech activities.

The ACLU and CLS represented three of the hunger striking detainees who were placed in solitary confinement by ICE on March 27, 2014.  Plaintiffs were placed in solitary confinement after corrections officers entered their living area and invited approximately 20 detainees to meet with an assistant warden to discuss their reasons for engaging in hunger strikes.  Plaintiffs and other detainees who volunteered to attend the meeting were immediately placed in handcuffs and taken to individual isolation cells, where they were kept for 23 hours per day and were deprived of meaningful interactions with others.  They were not told why they were placed in solitary confinement, nor how long they would have to live in isolation.

The form of solitary confinement used by ICE, administrative segregation, does not require due process because it is supposed to be non-punitive.  However, it appears that ICE’s placement of Plaintiffs and other hunger striking detainees in administrative segregation was in fact punishment and retaliation for engaging in constitutionally protected free speech activities.

On May 5, 2014, detainees announced that they were ending the wave of hunger strikes after 56 days.

“Hunger-striking is a time-honored form of peaceful protest. The government should not interfere with an individual’s right to engage in this form of speech,” said Melissa Lee, Attorney and Institutions Project Coordinator with CLS.

“The Bill of Rights applies to everyone in America.  Punishing detainees who engage in political protest speech by putting them in solitary confinement was an unlawful attempt to chill free speech rights,” said ACLU of Washington Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

Handling the case are for the ACLU of Washington are staff attorneys Sarah Dunne, La Rond Baker, and Margaret Chen; Columbia Legal Services staff attorneys Melissa Lee, Nick Straley, and Andrea Schmitt; and ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Sal Mungia of the firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell, LLP.