Advocates Demand Investigation into ICE’s Retaliation and Abuse Against Hunger Strikers at Buffalo Detention Center

BUFFALO, NY, July 10, 2024 – Yesterday, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Justice for Migrant Families filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of detained individuals at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility (BFDF), New York State’s largest immigrant detention center. The complaint, which was submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), details unlawful retaliation and abuse by ICE officials after detained individuals participated in a peaceful hunger strike to protest the facility’s harmful lock-in policy and the discontinuance of free phone calls. The participating organizations have requested an immediate investigation into the incident.

On June 7, 2024, approximately forty individuals detained at BFDF engaged in their First Amendment-protected right to go on a hunger strike to protest the facility’s policy and practice of locking people in their cells for approximately 18 hours per day. Hunger strikers were also protesting the facility’s recent decision to end free phone calls to family, a critical lifeline for many detained individuals. Disregarding the protesters’ constitutional rights and ICE’s own operating standards, ICE officials responded to the hunger strike by threatening and using physical force against the strikers; placing them in solitary confinement; and denying them access to their jobs, recreational activities, and the law library.  

“BFDF has a long history of retaliating against people who advocate for themselves,” said Sarah Gillman, Director of Strategic U.S. Litigation at RFK Human Rights. “ICE officials responded to this latest incident in an abusive and punitive manner because at BFDF, punitive confinement is the norm and civil confinement is the exception.”

BFDF’s lock-in policy approaches the conditions of solitary confinement, which has severe medical consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder, increased risks of self-harm and suicide, and reduced cognitive function according to expert research. The only way to avoid this period of extended lock-in is to participate in what the facility terms its “voluntary work program,” which pays detained individuals $1.00 a day for hours of labor. 

“Family members call us and tell us that their loved one’s mental health is declining day by day under this practice,” said Justice for Migrant Families director Jennifer Connor. “Batavia has not always restricted people to their cells for eighteen hours, and people’s health is suffering as a result.”

“In bold disregard of multiple recent reports highlighting the serious and even deadly effects of solitary confinement in ICE detention, BFDF and ICE have persisted in subjecting entire general population units at BFDF to conditions tantamount to solitary confinement. These conditions at BFDF must change immediately in order to prevent further harm,” said CJ Sandley, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights

“People detained by ICE at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility have every right to speak out peacefully about the cruel, unjust conditions of their incarceration,” said Amy Belsher, Director of Immigrants’ Rights Litigation at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “ICE’s abhorrent, punitive response to people advocating for their rights is not only inhumane — it’s unconstitutional. We urge the federal government to address the serious constitutional violations in this complaint and ICE’s long-standing practice of squashing hunger strikes through unlawful retaliation. All people detained by ICE must be able to exercise their rights without repercussion or intimidation.”

The recent crackdown on hunger strikers is the latest example of abuse at BFDF. In June 2023, the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties opened a multidisciplinary onsite investigation into the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility, citing concerns over unhygienic living conditions; lack of confidentiality with legal mail; barriers to completing legal paperwork; inadequate language access (particularly for legal access); inadequate telephone services; problematic grievance processes; and more.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that has worked to realize Robert F. Kennedy’s dream of a more just and peaceful world since 1968. In partnership with local activists, RFK Human Rights advocates for key human rights issues, championing change makers and pursuing strategic litigation at home and around the world. And to ensure change that lasts, we foster a social-good approach to business and investment and educate millions of students about human rights and social justice. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.

Justice for Migrant Families is a grassroots organization based in Buffalo, NY that does direct support, advocacy and organizing for and with people impacted by immigration and enforcement, including undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, immigrants in detention, and LGBTQ+ immigrants.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) advances civil rights and civil liberties so that all New Yorkers can live with dignity, liberty, justice, and equality. Founded in 1951 as the New York state affiliate of the national ACLU, our work is rooted in the unrealized promise of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. and New York State Constitutions. With eight offices across the state and more than 90,000 member-donors, we connect movements across complex issues, informed by our communities and powered by our supporters.