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I Was Going to Leave Alive or in a Body Bag: An Immigrant Hunger Striker’s Story

While imprisoned in ICE custody, Marcial Morales Garcia helped lead a wave of hunger strikes in New Jersey jails where guards refuse to wear masks, rats run wild and toilets are often the only source of drinking water. Recently released, he’s now fighting on the outside for fellow immigrants still trapped on the inside.

Amba Guerguerian Jan 16

Read the Spanish version of this article here.

All illustrations by Marcial Morales Garcia.

When Immigration and Custom Enforcement finds someone who is in the US without official permission, they are yplaced in deportation proceedings. Migrants who cannot prove they have been in the US continuously for more than two years are often immediately deported. Those who can prove they have been here for two years or more have the right to a deportation trial.

Detainees waiting for that trial are sent to an “ICE facility”— a jail. Sometimes, ICE makes deals with private companies that build entire deportation centers or “concentration camps” as some critics call them. There are many of these on the U.S.-Mexico border and scattered around the South and Southwest. 

ICE also has contracts with preexisting jails and prisons to rent out cells for deportees. In New Jersey’s Bergen, Essex and Hudson County Jails, each county is paid between $110 and $120 a day per ICE detainee held. In 2018, Bergen County collected $12 million from ICE contracts. 

Because ICE isn’t required to hold its facilities to the same standards as the regular U.S. prison and jail systems, detainees often report deplorable jail conditions. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE detainees have started at least 49 recorded hunger strikes nationwide including several in New Jersey which jail staff have broken by sheer intimidation, sending strikers to solitary confinement or other disciplinary areas, hastening their deportations, or sending them to other jails including ones out of state that are far from the detainees’ families and support networks.

A few strikers have won their release, generally due to health concerns and external community and legal pressure. 

Those supporting the strikers are also punished. Solidarity protests outside of the Bergen County Jail were met with aggressive policing in mid-December. 

Marcial Morales Garcia in front of Bergen County Jail at a protest in solidarity with hunger strikers. Photo: Ken Lopez.

Marcial Morales Garcia participated in the hunger strike at Essex County in March. After being transferred to Bergen County in late September, he organized a slew of hunger strikes, one of which resulted in his release. 

Garcia is from Flores, Guatemala. When he was 15, his family didn’t have any access to food, so he traveled alone to the United States to meet his father in New Jersey. He walked three days and nights through the arid desert of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to get here. 

Now Garcia 37 with three kids, ages seven, nine, and 15. He’s a cook at a pizzeria. He’s in deportation proceedings but is determined to stay in this country with his family. The Indypendent spoke with him about his participation in the hunger strikes.

Indypendent: How did you end up in ICE custody?

MMG: I was arrested by the Warren County Police in 2018. Someone made legal claims against me that were never proven. I believed in my case so I decided to go to trial [rather than take a plea deal]. 

There was a hung jury for my trial. Only one juror was on the side of the prosecutor. The judge on-the-spot said we could have  a retrial but then when we formally requested the retrial, the request was denied. I was forced to take a plea. The system is built to make you fail no matter how hard you fight your case. I spent over $60,000 trying to beat this case. The system is made perfectly. 

When I got released from county jail after 21 months, Immigration [ICE] came and picked me up. 

In February of 2020, my lawyer said, “You’re going home today. You’re going back to see your family.” Instead, they kept me in jail until March, then they moved me to Essex County where I was held for deportation proceedings. 

I am in deportation proceedings. Because I’ve been here [the U.S.] since I was 15, I had DACA. No previous criminal record. I went to my country. I was doing whatever a citizen could do in this country. 

Where did they take you when they picked you up?

I was sent to Essex County Correctional Facility on March 6th. I got COVID at the beginning of March. We started a hunger strike at the beginning of April. When we saw the coronavirus pandemic was going through the jail like crazy and we saw the officers were taking no precaution and hiding the truth to the media—that the pandemic was inside the jail. 

They’re saying, “Don’t worry, the virus isn’t at the jail.”  And we’re seeing detainees passing out.  And a guy died. They said he died in the street waiting at the hospital. We all knew he died inside.

So we organized a whole unit, 200 guys, of hunger strikers. But they came and moved all the leaders of the hunger strike to different units or solitary. So everyone got scared and on the second day we quit. 

They took one of the leaders and punished him by putting him in solitary for 60 days. They’re not allowed to do that but they accused him of being a terrorist because he was organizing a hunger strike. 

In America You Have to Speak English

But you kept making noise.

Yes. Since I got there, I was trying to get in contact with any immigrant rights organizations I could in order to get my records and expose the conditions of the jail. 

When the pandemic came, the officers weren’t wearing masks. They never had cleaning supplies. I was trying to make noise by making calls so we could get cleaning supplies. One day, Chris Pleasant, a supervisor, told me, “Stop calling the hotline. It doesn’t work.” 

They monitor all the calls you make so they knew I was calling. It doesn’t matter if it’s “private.” No. They listen to all the phone calls.

What do you mean ‘get your records’?

I am diabetic and I have to have my insulin in the morning. Even in the Essex County handbook it says they have to check my sugar levels in the morning and evening and give me my insulin. They weren’t doing that. They would skip multiple days. There were other guys who were supposed to have medication and they weren’t giving it to them. 

When I got the virus, they put me in quarantine for 21 days with no medication. They threw me in a sound-proof, bullet-proof room. Nothing. Not even clean water to drink. They put me in the cell with the sink and toilet attached as one piece and dirty water. Only 20 minutes out of the cell each day. It was hard. It was a rough time. 

ICE lost a lawsuit, Fraihait v. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement that said humanitarian parole is necessary for individuals with health risks. You have to prove that you are at risk by getting your medical records from the jail and submitting them to ICE and then you’re supposed to be released.

I am in subclass eligible for release according to Fraihat. The jail staff was refusing to release my medical records. ICE is refusing to cooperate and jails are refusing to provide the medical records so detainees cannot prove the issues they have.

I had made over 30 calls to ICE’s complaint hotlines. They don’t do anything. They didn’t help at all.

I also reached out to all the immigration rights organizations and hotlines I could find. Legal Services of New Jersey was doing some work with me. And I was able to get my medical record. But as soon as I got it, they moved me.

Why did you get moved?

Because I kept making noise. Peralta, a supervisor, threatened to take away my privilege to use the tablets and the phone. I said, ‘“No. You cannot do that!” He got very angry with me. 

The next 3 a.m. day they said, “Pack it up.’” I asked, “Where am I going?” Nobody told me. When I woke up I was in Bergen County. It was September 25th.

The problem in Essex is there’s just a lot of abuse going on. It’s common knowledge that a lot of guys get raped by the officers and they just keep it in the inside. Nothing [news] goes outside. 

Once I saw a guard beating up a detainee really badly. 

Two of my friends there told me they were raped at the same time. Then one was deported and one was sent to Genesee County Jail in Batavia, New Jersey. 

The End of the American Dream

And what about the conditions at Bergen [County Jail]?

There are mosquitos and rats all over the place. The water isn’t clean. I would fill plastic bags with the water and it would be filled with debris and metal. 

And a lot of time the sinks don’t even work so you have to drink out of the toilet. If you’re lucky like me, you get put in a cell where the water is still dripping. It took an hour to fill up my 22 oz cup. I was lucky. At least it was dripping. Some don’t and you just have to drink out of the toilet.

Officers don’t have cleaning guidance or supplies so it’s very hard to keep that place clean. I was there for three months and there were some detainees who could never clean their cells because there just wasn’t any cleaning supplies. Some of them used to sneak in some water and throw it on the cell floor. 

The officers also never wear masks. When anybody sees the supervisor they call to the other units and say, “The supervisor is coming, put your mask on.” As soon as the supervisor leaves, they take it off.

None of them wear their masks?

No. None of them. 

So what was the rat situation?

I told the detainees to try and bring some evidence of the rats. In one week, one guy killed seven rats. They don’t want to be rat hunters, but they have to be. That’s how bad it is. 

How did he kill the rats?

As soon as the lights are turned off, all the rats start coming out and going into the cells. The cell only has one entrance, under the door. What he does is sit on the top bunk. As soon as the rat enters, he throws a blanket at the door so it will cover the door and the rat won’t be able to escape. Then he starts chasing the rat and kills it with his sandal.

Wow. So how did the hunger striking begin at Bergen?

We were 70 altogether brought to Bergen County. 30 of us on the 25th and the rest by the end of the month. They put us in individual cells and only let us out an hour a day. They said it was for quarantine. I said, “ ‘Quarantine?’ We came here all together. We’ve been together in the same space for hours.”

But they told us we’d be in quarantine for one week. The next week came and we were still there. They said they didn’t know what the situation was and sent us on a cat-and-dog chase. “Ask the supervisor, ask the warden, ask everybody.” 

Eighteen days and we were still in quarantine, only allowed out one hour a day to use the phone and take a shower. 

When I had my hour on the 18th day, we went around the whole unit and organized a hunger strike. I told them what to demand. 

The cells have windows on the doors but the correctional officers keep it closed. If it were open, you could communicate. Instead we speak loudly through door cracks. 

When we started the hunger strike, the sergeant asked us what we wanted. We said we wanted more time outside. He said we were supposed to be in quarantine. I said we’re 18 days in! They said to stop the strike, that they would make changes. We stopped striking but they didn’t make any changes.

Day 20. They’re still not doing anything so I said to the guys, “We’re not gonna stop this time until we get what we want.” So when we refused the first meal, they said, “Pack it up.”

Day 21. They moved us to a different unit. Basically the same thing. One hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon to go out. No law library. All those guys have to fight their cases. They don’t have lawyers. Nobody was allowed to use the law library, and still no drinkable water. 

So we go back on hunger strike and this time it was official [9 skipped meals]. We went for three days. And then all of them came, ICE and the jail staff. They talked to us and said they were gonna fix things. “We’re gonna allow you guys outside.” 

We said we needed to go to the law library. They said to give them some time to get the things working. I said we should not stop because they’re not gonna give it to us. Soon they brought the computers and we stopped the strike again. The laptops didn’t work. And we asked for the more time outside they said they were gonna allow but it never happened. 

A week later my brother was killed in my country. I asked for more time to call my family. They called the sergeant. The sergeant said, “We’re gonna go to Medical so we can have more privacy. I need to talk to you.” So they took me to Medical. They put me in a room. They called it the Suicide Watch Room. They took my clothes off and they left me all night like that. Without clothes. No blankets. No sheets. 

When Are You Coming Back Home?

Did you indicate you were suicidal?

I asked him why I was in there and that’s when they started to strip me. They said the doctor said I was Level One suicide watch. I told him I hadn’t talked to the doctor. “It is what it is,” he said. 

After getting out the next day, I only ate twice that whole week. The next week, I only ate once a day. Third week out, I told everybody, “If you have chronic health issues or health problems let me know cause we’re gonna do a hunger strike.” Ten guys were down. I wrote to the jail and I said, “We’re gonna start the hunger strike Monday and this is what we are demanding: We want our medical records because we are eligible for release. We want cleaning supplies. We want better conditions.

They said we wouldn’t be released.

Eleven of us went on strike on November second. They took me away again. I was the leader. I was not there to encourage them. So they went for six days and then they gave up. It was just me alone for the last three days. That’s what they do. They break it up. 

Supervisor Peralta came and asked what I was doing. I said, “We are doing a hunger strike and we’re looking to get released. Based on Fraihat I am in a subclass eligible for release. I have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and major depression disorder.”

He told me I wouldn’t be released. I said “Okay, well I’m not gonna eat. After three days my dead body will stink.”

Then things escalated. He acted like he was gonna hit me. I said, “Hit me. But hit me hard or else you’re gonna regret it.” He called the guards, said I was threatening him. 

I got five charges. They took me and put me in handcuffs and hung me by the handcuffs. They sentenced me to 15 days in the disciplinary area. That’s basically solitary. Every two days you can take a shower.

I said, “Whatever you do is not gonna stop my hunger strike. They tried to make me eat. I said no. After five days they put me on suicide watch. Again, they took my clothes off. In the cell, three walls are regular walls and one is all glass and everyone can see you naked inside. They took everything from me and put me there for five days. My friends started calling ICE and some legal organizations to complain.

One day, they came and gave me my clothes and said I was going back to the disciplinary area. This was 9 days after I went official with the strike. Then the sergeant called and said, “Pack it up.” I thought they were gonna move me to another jail. 

I was released. They said my brother was coming. 

Now I have an ankle monitor on. It took me three days to start sleeping again. I was so panicked. I had made the decision that I was gonna die. Even now, if I’m alone in my room, I feel that something is around me. I feel rats around me. They’re not there.

There was a 30-day hunger strike That ended mid-December. After you left, did the other guys decide to go back on strike?

They were on hunger strike with me and got scared and stopped. After they saw I got released, they went back on strike. 

How many of them were there?

Fourteen. Five Have been transferred to Batavia. One of them was then deported. One was moved to Miami. And two who were in bad health were released.

And when they get moved, that’s punishment, right?

Yes. They don’t have family there. They have nobody there. They have been in New Jersey for decades. If you take them to other states, what’s gonna happen? There’s nobody for them.

Why do you think you were released?

There were a lot of organizations mobilized for my case. And my health was getting worse. They don’t want you to die on hunger strike. That looks really bad for them.

How does it feel to be striking?

I was panicked. They abuse their power. They were screaming at me, “You’re gonna die!” My answer was, “It doesn’t make a difference to me right now. You’re gonna release me. Either in a body bag or alive.” That’s the last answer I gave to them. 

But I thought I was gonna die.

What have you been doing to support the hunger strike since you were released?

I help them economically. I deposit money to their accounts. I listen to them. When someone answers your call it’s a big relief. So every time they call me, I answer. 

I use a different name but the jail staff knows my voice, so they are always blocking my number. A friend said that when he used to dial my number it would say “this phone has been restrictively blocked from the jail.” I just keep making new numbers. They block one and I make three. They block three I make ten. I’m trying to support a network of information going in and out of the jail. 

I have a lot of organizations’ numbers. I call the organizations and ask them to work on the guys’ cases. So I’m releasing all this information to the media. They can hear radio stations. They hear me and go “I heard you on the radio. Thank you so much.” Things like that make a big difference when you are in a place where there is no hope.

My goal here is to let the world know what happens inside of jails. Where the greatest justice in the world should be is the worst place to be. That’s my goal. Let everybody know. It doesn’t matter if that brings me problems. And I won’t shut up. I had a couple unknown calls threatening me and saying I should stop. I said you’d have to cut my tongue out or kill me. 

I’m not totally happy because I left my brothers behind. I’m desperately looking for help for those I left behind.

You’ve been to rallies at Bergen. I’m surprised you’ve been actually going back there.

Yes. I feel like I have to do it. Because when they call me, I can say I’m here outside supporting you. That’s my way to tell them I’m with them. “I’m here outside. Can you guys hear us?” And they can. I’ve been there at least 12 times. 

It’s scary to go back. It brings back a lot of emotions. 

So you’ve been protesting since the moment you were put into ICE detention. 

Exactly. 

What made you decide to fight back?

At Wayne County Jail, they did whatever they wanted to me. They made me plea to something I never did. I got so angry. I started reading information and talking to lawyers. I thought, “Wow, maybe pushback can work, but we have to implement it.”

It was easier for me to do things knowing I had the other detainees’ support. 

And just to be clear, people are held in detention because they are in deportation proceedings, not because they necessarily committed a crime?

No one gets moved to jail to “pay crimes” to ICE. They make these deals with jails, they pay the jails to keep us and they just hold you for deportation, until your trial. 

Why do some people get sent to jail to await trial while others can be at home with an ankle monitor?

It depends on how much pressure you put on the system. If they have someone who never called the lawyers, they will send you to jail. But if you have a lawyer or if you or your family is calling about your case every day and making noise, they will probably just give you an ankle monitor. 

Ah. The age-old story. The more resources you have, the better chance.

Yeah. When I was in detention, some guys had been there for four years, waiting for what? One guy was there for almost five years. He was 16 years old when he was arrested in Virginia. Now he’s in Batavia [New Jersey]. He had his 18th birthday in jail.

The regular inmates in jail are allowed to go outside and hang out in the yard but the detainees aren’t. I used to go to medical and watch the inmates playing soccer knowing I wasn’t allowed outside.

And we’re not allowed to work. We cannot interact with the inmates because they are “prisoners” and we are “civil detainees.” 

But the same correction officers deal with us. That’s why they treat everybody like criminals. That’s all they know to do.

The crazy thing is that people all around the country don’t even know that this is happening.

Do you think people are held in pre-trial detention for such a long time as a way to deter them from pursuing their trials?

Obviously that’s part of the reason. The judges and Immigration are all working together. To make money, they keep the detainees in there, hoping they will be so dismayed that they give up and go back to their birth country. 

They are always telling you, “You are gonna be deported. You might as well give up.”

And it works out for the judges too because the immigration courts are so overwhelmed. 

Shit I Got Deported

Dare I ask…What is your opinion going into the Biden administration?

We have more hope with this new administration. But it’s just a hope. We have to remember all the New Jersey jails I’ve been talking about are in Democrat jurisdictions. 

I was just reading the other day that Obama built the cages and Trump uses them. 

Go to Marcial’s fundraiser: “Support Hunger Strikers and Families of Detainees.”

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