Immigrant detainees stage hunger strike at York County Prison

The York County Prison is where most immigration detainees in Pennsylvania are held after ICE arrests. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

The York County Prison is where most immigration detainees in Pennsylvania are held after ICE arrests. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Updated 6:20 p.m.

Advocates say as many as 180 immigrants held by federal authorities in York County Prison are refusing to eat in protest of what they say are insufficient precautions around the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are chickens in a chicken coop here — we are like sitting ducks,” said a detainee identified only as Jesus who is participating in the hunger strike. Organizers with the advocacy group MILPA say they learned of the protest after receiving calls from Jesus and the family members of four other current detainees, who say three cellblocks of 60 people are participating.

The protest follows a hunger strike at a different facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in Newark, New Jersey, and a growing chorus of calls to release ICE detainees due to the heightened risk of coronavirus spread in detention centers. Some who are medically vulnerable have already been freed by ICE, or on the order of a federal judge who criticized the federal agency’s “deliberate indifference” to those in its custody.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We want people to be able to get out on parole or with ankle bracelets and to be released,” said Jesus. “In our block, there are older gentlemen, there are people with high blood pressure, diabetes who are still here.”

MILPA’s Desi Burnette said that the detainees are concerned about the lack of protective equipment in the facility, and that her organization has requested more information from the facility about how it is planning to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2,400-bed York County Prison houses both people accused or convicted of criminal offenses and immigrants awaiting deportation or waiting for their cases to move through immigration court.

The prison has implemented screening procedures, including taking employees’ temperature on arrival and screening incoming detainees for flu-like symptoms. Visitation has been suspended, and legal representation is also taking place using video conferencing, according to the county government.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Several detainees in ICE custody at York County Prison, in York, Pennsylvania, have recently refused meals, but still have access to food via the commissary,” an ICE spokesman said Saturday evening. The agency would not share more specifics due to “privacy rules” but said it is monitoring the health and food intake of hunger strikers.

This article was updated to include a comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal