"It gives me great pleasure to participate in this hunger strike," begins a letter written in Spanish from one of 27 women who have vowed to refuse food until they receive adequate care and treatment at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center for undocumented female immigrants in Texas.
The word "pleasure" is a morose juxtaposition to the inhumane treatment the women claim they have experienced at the detention facility in Taylor, a small city located about 30 miles northeast of Austin. Letters from 17 of the women that were released by the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership assert that the center has been serving food that is inedible and that they have been denied adequate medical care and legal representation while they wait for their cases to be resolved. Many of the detainees, who mainly hail from Central America, have been there for many months despite US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) saying that the average stay at Hutto is 31 days.
"I am a woman fleeing a country where women are given few rights, all of which are violated, and land in this place where the people of immigration condemn us to a process with little or no security, since this process will ultimately end with our deportation," one of the women, identified only by the name Matilde, wrote. "With no objection to a lack of defense, condemning us to an assured death upon being deported back to our countries, then where are our rights? Or why so much time?"
The women began the hunger strike on Wednesday evening, and their effort is not isolated. Two other strikes were initiated earlier this month in detention centers in El Paso Processing Center in Texas and Lasalle Detention Center in Louisiana. In April, 10 mothers at ICE's Karnes facility in Texas also launched a hunger strike.
"In the immigrant detention system at large there are so many instance of abuse and neglect," said Grassroots Leadership's immigration programs director, Cristina Parker. "At Hutto, the perennial complaints are always about food — how it makes the women sick — and insufficient medical care. But the overall complaint is having their liberty deprived and the fear of deportation."
The organization rallied dozens of supporters at the center on Wednesday to coincide with the period between 5 and 7 PM when detainees are usually allowed outside for recreation. But when they did so again on Thursday, they found an empty yard behind the wire fencing.
"The fact that the women weren't allowed out at that time shows that ICE has already begun to retaliate against them for hunger striking," Parker said.
When presented the letters and approached for comment, ICE said in a statement on Friday that it was "not aware of any detainees who have stopped eating or who have expressed they would stop eating."
Hutto "is staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents at the facility," the statement said. "Individuals have access to meals served three times daily at the cafeteria, and are also able to purchase food from the commissary."
The detention facility has a maximum capacity of 512 but a minimum detention quota of 500 at all times. It is run by Corrections Corp of America (CCA), a contractor that is one the two biggest for-profit private prison companies in the US, the other being the GEO Group. Together, the companies rake in more than $3.2 billion annually from ICE, which monitors the facilities.
One of the women, identified as Elda from Guatemala, has been detained in Hutto since December 22. She wrote that she is fighting deportation to stay with her young daughters, both of whom are US citizens.
"My daughters have depression they are very sad because I am not with them," she wrote, dispensing with punctuation. "I am detained fighting to stay with my daughters they need me they are very little."
Each year, more than 400,000 immigrants pass through the privately run facilities, and on any given night there are at least 34,000 people sleeping in detention centers, thanks to a mandatory bed quota that helps keeps these private companies in business. The private detention industry nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 as ICE cracked down on undocumented immigrants.
Prisoner advocates have long charged that the privatization of prisons and immigration detention centers create inhospitable environments for inmates or detainees through cost cutting and a lack of oversight.
This month, a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network revealed that ICE failed to properly inspect at least five major facilities, gave staff members advance warning of inspections, let the facilities negotiate with inspectors to improve their ratings, and failed to publicly disclose its findings.
The report found that at least six incidences of sexual assault had been dismissed or downgraded to physical assault at a detention center in Georgia, while staff at a processing center in Houston placed a schizophrenic man who experiences panic attacks in solitary confinement for nine months. It also alleged that ICE routinely ignores problems found in inspections that are conducted by the Office of Detention Oversight, an independent commission that monitors facilities.
The issue of privately run detention centers has become the subject of renewed focus in recent months amid calls for nationwide criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration. It has received attention in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, with several presidential candidates openly expressing opposition to such facilities.
Last month, Vermont senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled a plan to get rid of private prisons within three years with his Justice Is Not for Sale Act, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last week that she would no longer accept direct donations from private prison lobbyists.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields