On Feb. 26, several detainees at two immigration detention centers in Kern County—the Golden State Annex and Mesa Verde—went on a hunger strike to protest inhumane treatment and unsanitary conditions. Relatives of the strikers and immigration rights activists converged at the sites to support the protest.
Family members of the detainees just outside of the wire fence at the Golden State Annex leaned inward to perhaps catch a glimpse of their loved ones held behind barbed wire. There were shouts from loved ones on both sides of the fence, “Libertad! Libertad!”
You could hear the shouts of the visitors outside the fence: “Do not despair, you are not forgotten!”
Then a few inmates in the facility yard would scream back: “We hear you, thank you for coming!”
One family member’s eyes tear up as she does not see her loved one in the yard. She holds a sign that says “We are with you hunger strikers.”
At that time, the detainees were on the 10th day of their hunger strike.
A young man shouting in support of the hunger strikers was Fidel Garcia, an ex-inmate of this facility. He was born in Mexico, was detained by immigration and brought to the Golden State Annex, where he stayed for a year and a half.
As we stood along the fence at the detention facility, Garcia spoke about the living conditions he experienced there.
“The conditions went from bad to worse, to horrible. To the extent of not just having the basic needs. The deodorants they provided gave us rashes. We raised these complaints, but they disregarded them.
“Then it built up to things like cockroaches in our food, nails and hair in our food, spoiled milk, spoiled beans, and it was all brushed under the rug. We have mold in the showers. When it rains, the roof leaks. ICE is aware of this. I have made multiple complaints to ICE.
“I have papers by GEO [which runs the detention center] stating they were going to fix it; nothing got done. I have those grievances! They tried to minimize our situation. They tried to make it seem that we were just complaining. ICE and GEO minimize everything.
“GEO is a multimillion dollar corporation which profits out of immigrants. As of 2021, GEO Group owns and manages 106 prisons and ‘community corrections’ centers worldwide with a total capacity of 86,000 beds and e-carcerates an additional 250,000 people using electronic monitoring technologies.
“At the end of the day, this is a civil rights case. We are being treated as less than human beings. We deserve to be free, we deserve to be with our communities. And, most importantly, we deserve to be with our families.”
A GEO Group spokesperson denied any wrongdoing in a prepared statement released to the media. He called the hunger strikes a baseless allegation and said that inmates are given three free meals every day created by a registered dietician. Detainees’ actions are a “politically motivated and choreographed effort by outside groups,” he said.
On March 5, at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, many more showed up to support the inmates’ hunger strike that was then on its 17th day. People from Los Angeles to San Jose held signs and listened to testimonies over the phone from inmates still locked up inside just a few yards away.
Nestor Chavez, a young father of two daughters who went into foster care when ICE detained him, has a soft and polite voice with a slight nervousness in it. He shows a strong determination to right a wrong situation—to bring to light not only the injustice endured by the inmates but also the pain loved ones go through waiting for them to come home.
Chavez shares how hard it was from 2018 to 2021 when he was locked up at the detention center. He points to a large scar from a broken leg he got while in custody. “Right there, I got a broken leg. Look at how my foot is.” He has a surgical scar at least eight inches long close to his ankle.
“Can you imagine having a broken leg and staying in bed for three days without being taken care off? Without even an aspirin? That is inhumane. When they did look at me, my leg was purple all the way up here (holding the top of his leg).”
They finally took Chavez to the hospital for surgery. He paused and said, “Do you know what they told me then? ‘I’m sorry, Chavez.’ That’s sincerely ridiculous; it’s inhumane.”
Chavez then addressed how those people outside, waiting, are going through bad moments as well. He knew his daughters suffered without him.
“Believe me that to be in there isn’t easy…Those that are in there are fathers, brothers, uncles…In the evening, I would go out into the detention center’s yard and look at the sky. I would see the moon and begin to cry thinking of my daughters.
“They (the detention center) didn’t want to give me an opportunity to be with them. I was there for a long time in Mesa Verde…yeah, sincerely, it’s nothing easy. Finally, they gave me my leave on Feb. 16, 2021.”
Chavez looks at his daughters, who are playing, laughing and glancing to see that their papa is really there, and says, “They are happy, super happy, that is priceless.” He smiles.
On the other hand, the Mesa Verde Detention Center’s actions are no less than torture. Their owners are making millions out of the suffering of the detainees.
“I ask the community to unite,” pleads Chavez. “That we raise our voice! So that these places get closed down because it’s shameful that these places exist.”
Inmates continue their hunger strike to create awareness of ICE and GEO’s systemic actions of neglect, torture, horrific conditions and the ongoing retaliations that exist within the detention centers.