Published on March 14th, 2014 | by Patricia Sully


We will not comply: hunger strike at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center

Today marks one week since detainees at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center went on hunger strike to demand better food, wages for work they perform at the facility, bonds so that families can remain together while they contest their cases, and an end to deportations.


The Northwest Detention Center is doing everything in its power to break the strike, including isolating strike leaders and threatening to force feed detainees.

In Tacoma and across the country, people are rallying to support the strikers and protest deportations.

Hunger strikes have been used as a method of resistance for centuries. While it was not until the 1900s that prisoners began to use hunger strikes in their modern form, as early as the 8th century, villagers in  Ireland “aired their grievances and settled disputes by fasting on the doorsteps of their wrongdoers until they were publicly shamed into doing the right thing.”

The first documented modern hunger strike in Ireland occurred in 1917 with Thomas Ashe, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, who went on hunger strike to demand prisoner of war status after his conviction for sedition. Ashe’s hunger strike, however, was short lived — after just five days, he died while being force fed by prison authorities.

More than sixty years later, in the summer of 1981, the Irish Republican Army would use hunger strikes with a an equally deadly result. Bobby Sands, a 27-year-old member of the IRA, led a hunger strike at Her Majesty’s Prison Maze in Belfast which resulted in the death of ten men. The hunger strike soon caught media attention, making Bobby Sands a household name. In fact, the strike was so widely publicized and produced enough attention it helped to land Bobby Sands a seat in the British parliament.

Bobby Sands never served his term. He starved to death after sixty-six days without food.


The United States has a long and complicated history with the practice of force-feeding as a method to break hunger strikes. In July 1917, Alice Paul, an American suffragette, was force-fed raw eggs through a plastic tube after she entered into a hunger strike to protest the conditions of her confinement. The force feeding caused a mass public outcry, and the hunger strike is often credited with forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand in agreeing to support the 19th Amendment granting women the right vote.


While the Supreme Court has never considered the issue and lower courts are split, the vast majority uphold force feeding.

The United States now routinely force-feeds hunger striking detainees, both in domestic prisons and, notoriously, at Guantanamo Bay.

The World Medical Association (WMA) — created after the World War II “to ensure the independence of all physicians and to promote and achieve the highest possible standards of ethical behavior and care” — has explicitly declared the practice unethical, stating in the Declaration of Malta that “[F]orce feeding contrary to an informed and voluntary refusal is . . . never ethically acceptable . . . .”  and makes clear when such a practice crosses the line from unethical to inhuman and degrading treatment when it is accompanied by threats, coercion, force, or use of physical restraints.

The American Medical Association (AMA), a WMA member, backed the Declaration of Malta and has repeatedly stated its opposition to force feeding competent individuals against their will.

In March 2006, 250 doctors from seven Western countries published an open letter in a British medical journal warning that, in their opinion, the participation by any doctor in force feeding, particularly the practice at Guantánamo Bay, is contrary to the rules of the WMA. The editorial concluded:

 “Force feeding has no place in the treatment of hunger strikers who are entitled to receive the highest medical care available, including independent clinical assessment and advice from a doctor whom the striker trusts and who explains the risks and effects of fasting.”

 Physicians for Human Rights endorsed the letter, with President Holly G. Atkinson, MD, stating “The infliction of pain and suffering to discourage a hunger strike violates U.S. law and basic principles of human rights.”


Doctors in Switzerland — despite the Swiss courts’ assertion that force feeding is legal — have refused to condone or participate in the practice. When Barnard Rappaz, who is currently serving a prison term for trading in cannabis, went on hunger strike to protest what he considered to be an excessive sentence, Switzerland’s highest court ruled that Rappaz could be force-fed if necessary. Doctors in charge of Rappaz, however, have simply refused to obey the court’s orders.

1780779_10102338202665150_199253400_nBoth Great Britain and Canada have both officially recognized a prisoner’s legal right to refuse food during a hunger strike and be free of medical intervention.

In 1996, British courts refused to intervene in a prisoner’s ninety-eight day hunger strike. Similarly, in 2001, Barry Horne, who was imprisoned for firebombing facilities associated with animal testing, starved himself to death “in the name of animal rights.” The Court declared Horne to be “sane” and thus “had no choice” but to allow him to refuse food.

The prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is today so well-established under international human rights law that it is recognized as a jus cogens norm — or fundamental principle of international customary law from which no derogation is permitted — as well as a violation of the U.N Convention Against Torture (CAT).

While the CAT monitoring body has yet  to issue an official decision on force feeding at Guantanamo, the United Nations has publicly condemned the U.S. force feeding practice and likened the procedure to torture — in 2006, a report to the Economic and Social Council stated the methods of force feeding mentally competent detainees constituted a violation of the right to health and medical ethics.


What is happening at the Detention Center in Tacoma deserves our attention. Immigration policy and the deportation of millions deserves our attention. The privatization of prisons deserves our attention. The treatment of detainees deserves our attention. And the fact that the detention center may use a forceful, inhumane, and widely (outside of the United States) barred method of breaking the hunger strike most certainly deserves our attention.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied to support the detainees and protest deportations. People cried out for justice, shouted the long and oft repeated chants for equality and songs for solidarity.

When night came, the sturdy remained in the darkness, banging on pots and pans, blaring music from a sound system, playing drums and saxophones and even, I think, at one point, a tuba.

Fireworks lit up the night and people hooted and hollered their hardest, trying to make sure the people inside, the people on the other side of the walls, could hear and could know:

You are not alone.

We are here.

We support you.

We will fight too.

Your struggle is not unnoticed,  will not be ignored.

The support continues and you can add your voice. To get updates on the strike and the on-going actions and find out how to help, follow NWDC Resistance/Resistencia al NWDC on Facebook.

Photography by Alex Garland. Alex Garland is a free lance photographer based in the greater Seattle area. He has a passion for photography and the messages saved and shared by capturing a moment in time. You can view more of his work at   


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