In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union filed this lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to expose the treatment of hunger strikers in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.

The lawsuit sought a range of documents related to hunger strikes in ICE detention — from policies to records of specific incidents. The complaint noted that advocates for social change — including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Cesar Chavez — have long used hunger strikes as a form of nonviolent protest. The modern-day immigrants’ rights movement is no exception. In recent years, hunger strikes have roiled immigration detention facilities in many states, as detainees seek to call attention to lack of access to bond hearings and inhumane conditions of confinement.

In April 2014, for example, the ACLU of Washington sued ICE for putting hunger strikers in solitary confinement at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. And in 2017, a federal court authorized officials at the Stewart Detention Center, run by private prison company Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic, to restrain and force-feed a hunger-striking immigration detainee. According to reports, the hunger striker was Vitaly Novikov, a refugee from the former Soviet Union who is protesting ICE’s plans to deport him to the Ukraine.

Between 2017 and 2019, we received more than 10,000 documents, and we agreed to dismiss the case in November 2019.

In 2021, the ACLU released a report, Behind Closed Doors: Abuse and Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers in U.S. Immigration Detention, based on the documents obtained in the litigation. The report offers an unprecedented look at the scale and scope of ICE’s cruelty and coercion against hunger strikers in immigration detention facilities, spotlighting an array of punitive practices against hunger strikers, such as:

  • Force-feeding, forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization, and other involuntary and invasive medical procedures
  • Solitary confinement without medical justification, endangering detainees’ health
  • Retaliatory deportations and transfers of hunger strikers, despite clear medical risks
  • Use of excessive force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and beatings
  • Denial of basic privileges and restricted access to water, recreation, and communication
  • Mistreatment of hunger striking parents, and plans to separate hunger striking parents from their children in family detention facilities
  • Threats of prosecution and deportation

Involuntary medical procedures like force-feeding have been condemned by the American Medical Association and described as torture by international human rights groups.

The full report is online:, as are selected documents obtained from the lawsuit.

Date filed

May 25, 2017