ICE detainees on hunger strike are being force-fed, just like Guantánamo detainees before them

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is force-feeding nine detainees who are on a hunger strike at a detention center in El Paso, Texas.

The protesters are mostly from India and are being held in ICE custody while their asylum or immigration cases are processed. Since the beginning of the year, they have been protesting their detainment and mistreatment by guards who they allege have threatened them with deportation and withheld information about their cases, according to the detainees’ lawyers.

In mid-January, a federal court ordered ICE to force-feed the strikers. An ICE official stated: “For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.” ICE policy states that the agency authorizes “involuntary medical treatment” if a detainee’s health is threatened by hunger striking.

Force-feeding involves tying a detainee to a bed, inserting a feeding tube down the nose and esophagus and pumping liquid nutrition into the stomach. ICE detainees have reported rectal bleeding and vomiting as a consequence of being force-fed.

As I write in my book “Rightlessness” and research published elsewhere, this is not the first time U.S. government agencies have force-fed people in its custody.

Since 2005, the U.S. military has force-fed detainees at the Guantánamo Bay naval base whenever they would go on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention.

Force-feeding at Guantánamo

The U.S. military has indefinitely detained individuals at Guantánamo who it alleges are enemy combatants in the “war on terror” since 2002.

Hunger strikes have plagued Guantánamo since it opened in 2002. In one of the largest hunger strikes to occur in a U.S. detention facility, about 500 detainees stopped eating under the slogan “starvation until death” in late June 2005.

They began this strike to protest the conditions of their confinement, including alleged beatings, abuse of their religious freedom by mishandling the Koran and indefinite detention without trial.

Nutritional shakes, a tube for feeding through the nose, and lubricants, including a jar of olive oil, are displayed as force feeding is explained during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
In response, military doctors authorized “involuntary intravenous hydration and/or enteral tube feeding” – in other words, IV treatment and force-feeding.

Prisoners found ways to get around the feedings, like making themselves vomit or siphoning out their stomachs by sucking on the external end of the feeding tube.

The strike overwhelmed camp commanders. In December 2005, they called in help from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which had previously authorized force-feeding. The consultants observed as strikers were force-fed twice a day and recommended using the emergency restraint chair, a “padded cell on wheels.”

That requires strapping detainees down onto the chair, making it easier for guards to insert and remove a feeding tube. Detainees referred to it as the “execution chair.” This had the desired effect on the prisoners: Only a handful continued the hunger strike and it was over by February 2006. The camp ordered 20 more chairs.