By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Five detainees on hunger strike at an immigration holding center in Washington state were placed under medical observation on Tuesday, a federal agency said, while advocates insisted it was a divide-and-conquer tactic to undermine their protest.
Now in its fifth day, the hunger strike was called by detainees demanding an end to U.S. deportations and better conditions at the privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Some 27 hunger strikers were placed in medical isolation Tuesday morning, but 22 of them later ate meals and returned to the general population, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement, adding that none of those fasting have been punished.
Of the hundreds of detainees who initially took part in the protest, five were still participating, ICE said.
Advocates backing the group, which put the number of striking inmates higher, have said detainees have faced intimidation tactics by the prison, such as open threats of forced feeding and efforts to isolate strike leaders.
Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of Seattle-based Latino Advocacy, said she had spoken by phone on Tuesday afternoon with one of the remaining strikers, Ramon Mendozo Pascual, who told her he would continue fasting until the demands had been met.
"They are civil rights activists and whistle blowers," Villalpando said. "They are telling the world the about the terrible conditions they're facing and they're risking their health and life to do it."
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.
Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States have hit record highs, according to government data.
An ICE spokesman said the agency and officials from GEO Group, which runs the facility, were seeking to improve some conditions inside.
"Several issues that have been brought to management's attention are being addressed, including adding more items to the commissary list and exploring ways to reduce prices," said Andrew Munoz, a Seattle-based ICE spokesman in a statement.
Involuntary feeding would only occur as a last resort, Munoz said.
At the strike's outset on Friday, more than half of the center's roughly 1,300 detainees refused meals, with ICE putting the number at 750 and advocates claiming that 1,200 were participating.
Among the strikers' demands have been better food, an increase in their $1-per-day pay and a reduction in the bond amounts they must pay to be released pending the outcome of their deportation cases.
ICE said in a statement that in many cases bond amounts could only be changed by an immigration judge.
The GEO Group has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
The official average stay for detainees at the center is four months, but most wind up staying longer, said Sandy Restrepo, an attorney for several of those who took part in the strike.
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.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Eric Walsh)