by Cindy Knoebel

On Monday, August 10, a group of forty to forty-five Black asylum seekers detained at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, the majority Cameroonian, declared a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, racist treatment and facility conditions.

It wasn’t the first time they had held a hunger strike. Back in March, a peaceful hunger strike was brutally quashed by Pine Prairie authorities.

And like last time, facility personnel responded with unprovoked violence.

They announced that the protesters would be placed in solitary confinement. Then, according to a CRCL (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties) complaint filed on August 26, as the strikers sat on the floor, some with their hands above their heads, “…fifteen guards mobilized with tear gas cannisters, a tear gas gun, pepper spray and handcuffs.”

Filed by the Cameroonian American Council, Freedom for Immigrants, Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy (ASLA) and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the complaint details what happened next:

“[O]fficers restrained three men, climbing on top of them and attempting to place them in chokeholds. One man in hunger strike who had his hands up described being thrown to the ground with six officers on top of him. He felt he was going to be suffocated, and had bruises all over his body. Officers restrained and pointed a gun at another one …”

Following the retaliatory actions, the three wounded men were returned to their dorm. However, in subsequent days, officers repeatedly visited them and threatened to place them in solitary confinement if they didn’t eat. They also threatened to take the men’s commissary, including phone and tablet access.

After agreeing to a temporary pause of the hunger strike, the complaint notes that after negotiations to re-review their cases with ICE failed, the hunger strike resumed on August 21.

This time the protesters were rounded up by officials in military gear and placed into “Echo Unit,” used for solitary confinement. According to the complaint, those placed in Echo unit “…face severely punitive conditions, including: little or no yard/recreation/social time, no amenities (such as microwave and TV); limited/arbitrary/unpredictable shower, hygiene, and access to potable water, no access to tablets or grievance forms or a means to make medical requests … and limited call access.”

The strikers were placed in cells used as COVID-19 quarantine areas that had not been cleaned or disinfected.

The CRCL complaint argues that the group of primarily Cameroonian asylum seekers currently on strike are being detained by ICE at a much higher rate than other populations. “Despite most, if not all, having family and community here in the U.S., they have all been categorically denied release.”

Underscoring the racist treatment endured by many detained Cameroonians, according to the SPLC, Cameroonians are two and a half times more likely to have their paroles denied by the New Orleans ICE Field Office than detained people from non-African countries. Since September of 2019, that office has denied humanitarian parole to more than 200 Cameroonians.

Since 2016, more than 450,000 people have fled Cameroon in the face of violence by government forces against separatists fighting for an independent state and an upsurge in attacks by Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization.

The complaint was sent to DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari and Cameron Quinn, Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“In the name of integrity and accountability, we again urge you to investigate and remedy the above detailed incidents of racism and violence against detained Black immigrants at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, and all incidents of violence which we, our partner organizations, and the press have identified by ICE against the human beings in its care here in Louisiana,” the complaint concludes, together with a warning that, if the hunger strikers are not released from Echo immediately, “further action will be necessary.”