In the Spring of 2014 a hunger strike started inside an immigrant detention center in Conroe, Texas at the Joe Corley Detention Facility one hour north of Houston. Joe Corley is one of several detention centers and prisons run by The GEO Group, INC which is a private company making millions off of incarcerating prisoners, immigrant detainees, the mentally ill, and those with addictions. Several weeks before the hunger strike started in Conroe, there was a hunger strike in Tacoma, Washington at the Northwest Detention Center which is also run by The GEO Group. The strike in Tacoma went on for over a month and at its height was carried out by around 1,200 inmates. These strikers developed a demand letter as they were on strike. The demands were centered around the conditions of the facility itself and included better food, better treatment, better pay, lower commissary, and “fairness.”
Inspired by the Tacoma strike, inmates at the Joe Corley Facility decided to carry out their own hunger strike in Conroe. Initial reports were that a larger group had started the strike but that the group had become smaller by the time they released a demand letter through a lawyer. Similar to the strikers in Tacoma, Joe Corley inmates demanded improved conditions of the detention center, better quality of food, outdoor privileges, and better visitation arrangements. But unlike Tacoma, they demanded something quite different: the abolition of deportation and detention.
These two strikes taken together show a shift from actions around individual cases, which has a been pattern of immigrant activism for the last few years, but the prisoners at Corley gave the strikes a political character.
Left-wing of the Immigrant Rights movement
A few days before the hunger strike started there was a small group of immigrant rights activists who were put in touch with the strikers by other activists. Members of this informal committee quickly differed in what the orientation to the strike should be and what any outside support should look like. A more moderate wing wanted the committee to orient towards winning public sympathy and playing up the humanitarian aspects of the detainees, and to hopefully have politicians write letters on behalf of the strikers. However, a more militant wing felt it was important to socialize the struggle behind the prison walls to immigration issues in general.
Another disagreement was over where actions should be held. The more moderate members wanted to have actions at the facility and for the focal point to be the prisoners and their families. This meant having smaller, isolated protests far from the city which made it difficult to bring people out. A more militant wing, however, wanted to carry out actions in Houston against certain political targets such as the jails and the Sheriff, Adrian Garcia. The Sheriff’s office and downtown jail are a part of 287g which checks the immigration status of arrestees, who, if found to be undocumented, are later sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These forces are an integral part of immigrant existence and actions like these should develop into more confrontational tactics such as sit-ins at the offices of politicians and government officials.
Debates came to a head when there was a National Day of Action in support of the hunger strikers in Tacoma, Washington. The Houston committee could not agree on a unified local action and so two different back-to-back events were planned as a compromise between the two factions. The first action was a vigil outside of Joe Corley. This vigil took place outside Corley on a rural road outside of the parking lot in a low traffic area. The second action took place in Houston. This was a rally where 75-100 people ended up swarming the Sheriff’s office, the same place where undocumented people are transferred to ICE via 287g. Therefore rally participants left the hunger strikers’ demands along with demands to end 287g.
Unfortunately, while outside actions were happening, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and The GEO Group were able to break the strike by speeding up the processing of deportations for some while sending others to different detention centers. They also started putting strikers into isolation claiming it was for the good of their own health. All of this, along with harassment and intimidation by the guards started breaking down the strikers’ morale and physical ability to continue. Also, some of the more moderate members of the committee began writing to the strikers discouraging them from continuing the hunger strike out of concern for their health which became another source of debate and disagreement inside the committee. At this point some strikers decided to end the strike and the first hunger strike at Corley was over.
The more militant members of the committee formed a new group, No Estan Solos (NES). They along with a few remaining participants wanted to encourage another hunger strike with new detainees who might be interested. NES began preparing a training for the families of the strikers on what to expect, but this never happened. They were, however, able to get a list of names of the inmates who might be interested and wrote them letters letting them know they had outside support. These letters also served to function as a kind of survey to learn about the conditions inside the detention center, their cases, as well as their experiences in general.
The earlier hunger strike was carried out by men who were going to get deported soon, some of which had been stuck in Joe Corley for months. Many of these men had felt they had little to lose and much more to gain by being involved in the strike. The second time around this did not appear to be the case. Even though No Estan Solos tried to be as explicit as possible about the limitations of a legal approach and that they themselves were not lawyers, the responses they were getting to the letters were more about asking for help with their cases and less about participation in the strike. Of course there can be approaches that fight on both a legal front alongside street actions and that could still push forward direct action tactics. However, there was a clear difference between the first group of strikers whose legal battles were over and lost and facing immediate deportation, and this second group who put more hopes into the legal fight and were less interested in participation in a hunger strike. Whether the difference was a lessened feeling of desperation, or a belief that the legal route had more potential than direct action, or maybe something altogether separate, the second hunger strike never happened.
Immigration and hunger and labor strikes
Toward the end of the strike at Joe Corley, there was a one day “blackout,” meaning the strikers refused to leave their cells and participate in work. Prison workers make extremely low wages and suffer due to high prices for commissary. What is essentially slave labor creates profit for The GEO Group in different ways. At Joe Corley they were involved in reproductive work and running the facilities: from administration, to cooking, to cleaning, etc.
A labor strike would bring the facility to a halt and potentially have more far-reaching consequences. For example, some detention centers also make food not just for their own facility but for others as well. This is true for Joe Corley. A labor strike there would stop feeding the inmates in that facility as well as the Harris County jail. Other facilities make furniture and provide telephone customer service. Labor strikes at these facilities would mean disrupting profit being made both in and out of the prison.
The Incarcerated Workers Committee (IWOC) of the Industrial Workers of the World are thinking about the need for prisoners and detainees to organize themselves and struggle from behind the walls and to link that struggle to the ones happening outside the walls.
We caught a glimpse of what was to come in early 2009, when a riot later immortalized as the “motin” erupted in a detention center in Pecos, Texas in response to the negligent death of an epileptic detainee. Since the Joe Corley hunger strike, there have been other detainee struggles in Texas detention centers. In February 2015, a labor strike at Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas was viciously repressed by guards employed by Management and Training Corporation, provoking a riot of 2,000 detainees and ending with the permanent close of the facility. At the Karnes County Residential Center, a women’s and children’s facility in South Texas, there were two separate hunger strikes in March and April of 2015.
These struggles are not going away anytime soon. In Texas, like the rest of the country, we are thinking about how to orient ourselves to this activity in a way that does more than symbolically support the strikers and tail behind their families wishes. We hold true the maxim of the IWW that an injury to one is an injury to all!
The above perspectives are those of the author and do not reflect those of the No Estan Solos group. Adela is a Houston militant and a Wob who present during the hunger strike and for other actions. She currently does IWOC and labor organizing in the immigrant community, but she was not and is not a member of NES. Although much of the information was obtained through interviewing different members of NES, this does not reflect their or their groups’ perspectives on the hunger strike.
The GEO Group, INC http://www.geogroup.com/
Georgia Hunger strike of 2012 https://georgiahungerstrike.wordpress.com/
Tacoma Hunger strike of 2014 http://www.notonemoredeportation.com/portfolio/support-the-1200-detainees-on-hunger-strike-near-seattle/
Bring Them Home Campaign
Karnes family detention center in South Texas http://unityandstruggle.org/2015/04/06/women-and-children-first/
One thought on “The Conroe Detention Center Strike – Reflections of a Houston Militant and Wob”
Hey sorry it’s taken me a while but I do have a couple questions. I’m wondering if you’ve thought more about the hunger strike as a tactic? One thing you mention is that there is an uptick in hunger strikes nationally, and especially in Texas. While I think I agree that there are quantitatively more hunger strikes in recent years, it has been used as a tactic pretty consistently for the past decade (probably even longer) and it is definitely used as part of the daily struggle on an individual level by people who are in solitary confinement as one of the only available tools of resistance. For example, there was a rash of hunger strikes that your article failed to mention in the Valley and southern Texas in 2010 (http://news.swunion.org/2010/01/indefinite-hunger-strike-at-port-isabel.html). Anyway, if we can agree that hunger strikes are quantitatively on the rise, do you have any comments about any sort of qualitative shifts these hunger strikes are making? And/or do you see the work stoppages and prison worker strikes as qualitatively more militant?
PS – I saw the news of another strike at Hutto this week: http://grassrootsleadership.org/blog/2015/10/breaking-least-27-women-hunger-strike-hutto-detention-center-hutto27