Home > Recent Post > Bodies on the Line: Fighting Inhumane Treatment with Hunger in Immigrant Detention – Megan Carney

Bodies on the Line: Fighting Inhumane Treatment with Hunger in Immigrant Detention – Megan Carney

Megan Carney
Arizona State University & University of Washington, Seattle

Heeeeyyyy Obama! Don’t deport my mama!” I marched alongside dozens of protestors as they shouted these words from outside the Northwest Detention Center (NDC) in Tacoma, Washington, on March 11, 2014. Some 1,200 detainees at NDC had initiated a hunger strike four days earlier, issuing a handwritten list of demands to GEO Corp, the private prison company responsible for overseeing site operations. At the top of their list: better food.


In publicizing the protest, El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social[1] said hunger strikers were “putting their bodies on the line” for both better food (better, that is, than the bare potato served cold almost every day) and better treatment, better pay, lower commissary, and fairness. The number of huelgistas de hambre (hunger strikers) declined to 750 on day 2, 330 on day 3, and continued to spiral downward until only a handful of strikers remained at the time of the protest. GEO Corp had previously warned strikers that if they continued to refuse food for more than 72 consecutive hours, they would be put on medical watch and possibly force-fed. Immigration attorney Sandra Restrepo, speaking through a megaphone to an audience of protestors, shared her suspicion that detainees had likely withdrawn from the strike as a result of intimidation by guards.

Protestors heralded detainee Pascuál Ramón Mendoza – credited for having organized the strike – in his fifth day of striking. Mendoza’s wife and children offered a tearful salute of appreciation after being introduced by one of the event organizers. Some of the individuals in attendance were also former detainees who willingly spoke about the conditions inside. One of these individuals spoke about his 18 months in NDC, attesting to how “it breaks one’s heart and kills one’s spirits” to be subjected to the kinds of “mal alimentación” (poor feeding) that prevail here.


In recent months, the U.S. immigration detention system has come under increased scrutiny as immigrant rights groups like #Not1More express outrage at the over 2 million deportations that have been issued during Obama’s presidency. These groups simultaneously bring attention to the degrading and inhumane treatment endured by detainees including deprivation of food and water, denial of medical care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, discrimination, and racism. They note that most detainees have never committed a criminal offense; they merely lack formal authorization to be in the United States.

Detention Watch Network reports that only eight of the 350 U.S. detention facilities are actually overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS saves money by outsourcing detention to companies like GEO Corp. Whereas DHS only has to spend about $90 per day for each detainee apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and held at a private facility, it would have to spend about $122 per day to detain someone at its own facilities. In 2007, under pressure from the private prison lobby, DHS issued a daily bed quota of 34,000, essentially guaranteeing a steady revenue stream to private industry. Lengths of stay range from several days to several years, depending on how long detainees must await a decision regarding whether or not they may stay in the U.S. Although a small number of detainees are successful in achieving authorized release, detention is usually a routine (and, for these private corporations, profitable) step before “voluntary” or mandated deportation.

So why strike for better food?

Getting GEO Corp to alter its food service is a challenging task. Despite a long list of detention standards issued by DHS that includes an exhaustive 26-page section covering food services, there are no formal mechanisms to enforce these standards. Instead, detention center employees interpret standards at their own discretion, which complicates the potential for sweeping change at all GEO Corp facilities.  This regime of neglect becomes a disciplinary mechanism through which migrants become habituated to and internalize the conditions of their own “illegality” (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Willen 2007) and “deportability” (De Genova 2002). As De Genova (2002) has noted, systems of immigration enforcement are not geared toward deportation per se, but rather reflect a political economy that seeks to construct migrants as a deportable population, thereby ensuring the state a surplus of cheap, highly malleable (and disposable) labor. Stripped of political rights (Agamben 1998), detainees have increasingly fought back with the limited means available to them: their bodies. Putting their “bodies on the line,” detainees utilize the platform of voluntary hunger as a weapon not only against coerced orientation to poor food, but against the destructive system of immigration enforcement more generally (Carney 2013, 2014).

Reports of grossly harsh conditions at detention centers are becoming increasingly common throughout the Western world, forming part of a complex “network of detention structures” (Fassin 2012). Only a month before demonstrating with hunger strikers in Tacoma, I attended an anti-detention rally staged by some 10,000 people at Ponte Galeria, a Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) on the outskirts of Rome. Recently, detainees there also went on hunger strike, gaining global attention for sewing their lips shut with fishing wire. With record numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in Italy from North Africa and Syria, human rights’ organizations as well as other EU member states have voiced major concerns about Italy’s system of reception, which outsources much of its services to private contractors. Mistreatment of minors, overcrowding, and general inadequacy of facilities rank highest among these concerns.


While migrants in Italy’s CIEs spend anywhere from six to 18 months awaiting a decision from the EU, they have little to look forward to on the outside. On my research trip to Palermo, Agrigento, and Rome in February of this year, I encountered countless migrants who were living on the streets and relying on the goodwill of humanitarian NGOs to provide food, Italian language instruction, or access to the occasional shower. Italy’s economic crisis, resulting in austerity measures and mass unemployment that have crippled even the Italian working class, has left migrants with virtually no work opportunities. Yet EU policy also forbids these migrants from leaving Italy, unless of course they prefer to return to Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, or anywhere else off the European continent. Faced with narrow options, these migrants often fall prey to illicit trades within the black market.

Arguably it is the myopia around profits that continues to distract many of those in steadfast support of immigrant detention and forecloses an end to such dehumanization. However, when I share this information with different audiences in both Europe and the U.S., people are often surprised – and angered – to learn that they have been subsidizing a privatized system of immigrant detention. Not only do they tend to disagree with the overall practice of detention, but they are especially distraught by the idea of private companies benefitting from this practice.

There are of course other very important reasons why each of us should be concerned with our own implication in this egregiously unjust system, especially as it separates families, violates human rights, and neglects the health of detainees. Unfortunately, however, few are being held accountable for the human costs of this system. Even the private companies currently detaining the vast majority of individuals apprehended by ICE are not formally held accountable for adhering to detention standards.

In putting their “bodies on the lines,” the hunger strikers at NDC are seeking more than just better food and pay. Their actions have sparked a series of related events in recent weeks, suggesting that there is now growing momentum for a complete overhaul of this system. Since the launch of the hunger strike in March, some of the striking detainees have been placed in solitary confinement, and some have been deported. These acts of retaliation by ICE have only further emboldened immigrant rights’ activists to push for an end to abusive detention practices and to collaborate with labor activists in demanding broader action by policymakers.

*As of this writing, some of the NDC detainees remain on hunger strike.

[1] The Committee for Immigration Reform and Social Justice.

Megan A. Carney, PhD is a critical medical anthropologist specializing in migrant women’s health. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Comparative Border Studies Institute at Arizona State University and Affiliated Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her current research focuses on the broader effects of post-9/11 immigration enforcement practices in the U.S., especially for health-seeking behaviors and mental health in Latino communities. She is also conducting research on Italy’s immigration crisis. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her forthcoming book with University of California Press explores the biopolitics of food insecurity through the lens of women’s lived experiences with migration and social inequality.

Works Cited

Agamben, G. 1998 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Carney, M.A. 2013 Border Meals: Detention Center Feeding Practices, Migrant Subjectivities, and Questions on Trauma. Gastronomica 13(4):32-46.

Carney, M.A. 2014 The Biopolitics of ‘Food Insecurity’: Towards a Critical Political Ecology of the Body in Studies of Women’s Transnational Migration. Journal of Political Ecology 21:1-18.

De Genova, N. 2002 Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:419-47.

Fassin, D. 2011 Policing Borders, Producing Boundaries. The Governmentality of Immigration in Dark Times. Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 213-226.

Gonzales, R.G., and L.R. Chavez. 2012 “Awakening to a Nightmare”: Abjectivity and Illegality in the Lives of Undocumented 1.5-Generation Latino Immigrants in the United States. Current Anthropology 53(3):255-281.

Willen, S. S. 2007 Toward a Critical Phenomenology of “Illegality”: State Power, Criminalization, and Abjectivity Among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel. International Migration 45(3):8-38.

Cite this: Carney, Megan. 2014. “Bodies on the Line: Fighting Inhumane Treatment with Hunger in Immigrant Detention.” AccessDenied: A Conversation on Unauthorized Im/migration and Health. Accessed [date] at https://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/bodies-on-the-line-fighting-inhumane-treatment-with-hunger-in-immigrant-detention-megan-carney/.

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