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Immigrant hunger strikers in Washington state could be force-fed

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Dozens of detainees on the fourth day of a hunger strike protesting U.S. deportations and detention center conditions at a Washington state immigration facility were being medically evaluated on Monday and could be force-fed, a federal agency said.

As of lunchtime on Monday, some 130 detainees of a total of roughly 1,300 were continuing to refuse to eat, but some of them may be eating food purchased from the commissary at the privately run Northwest Detention Center, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement.

Involuntary feeding "only happens when it is absolutely medically necessary," said Andrew Munoz, an ICE spokesman in Seattle. "The main concern is to ensure they remain healthy."

But a lawyer backing the group, which planned to carry on the strike at least until Tuesday, said they face intimidation tactics by the prison, such as open threats of forced feeding and efforts to isolate strike leaders.

Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States have hit record highs, according to government data.

The hunger strike, inspired in part by similar protests begun last month outside an ICE office in Phoenix, comes at a time of a protracted and tense national debate on immigration reform.

Last year in California, prisoners staged hunger strikes over a two-month period to protest the policy of keeping some inmates in near-isolation for years. They ended the strike in September, after state lawmakers agreed to hold hearings on the practice.

The Washington state detainees want to see deportations stopped and are demanding better food, an increase in the $1-per-day pay for prison work, and better treatment by guards, said Sandy Restrepo, an attorney who represents several of the strikers.

The detainees at the Tacoma facility, operated by the GEO Group and about 30 miles south of Seattle, added on Monday that they want their bond amounts lowered, Restrepo said.

"They want a negotiation with ICE not just with false oral promises but concrete policy changes," Restrepo said.

GEO has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

At the outset, 750 inmates at the facility went on a hunger strike, according to ICE. Advocates for the strikers put their initial numbers at 1,200.

Advocates for the hunger strikers said their current numbers were significantly higher than those provided by ICE but declined to provide an estimate, citing actions they said ICE has taken to isolate strike leaders.

Official ICE protocol for inmates on a hunger strike for at least 72 hours calls for sometimes placing them in isolation and under medical observation while delivering them three meals per day. The inmates reached 72 hours on Monday.

If an inmate persists in not eating and his life is deemed at risk, ICE will seek a court order to mandate involuntary feeding. If such requests are denied, ICE "may consider other action if the hunger strike is still ongoing," according to the standards.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Ken Wills)

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