Ajay Kumar, an Indian asylum seeker, was force fed in 2019 while on hunger strike in the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas. A video of his force-feeding in 2019 was obtained by The Intercept
( Video: Travis Mannon, The Intercept
Matt Katz: This is The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz from WNYC filling in from Melissa Harris Perry today, good to have you with us.
Speaker 2: I am in medical at Theo Processing center, supervising a calculated use of force on detainee Kumar, Ajay- number 215-814-283. He is from India and we are here to assist medical staff on a nasogastric insertion that was ordered.
Matt Katz: You're hearing sounds from a video obtained by The Intercept that shows medical officials and private security guards overseeing the force feeding of Ajay Kumar while he was on hunger strike and held in immigration and customs enforcement detention as an asylum seeker.
Ajay Kumar: I come to United State to save my life, I'm an asylum seeker.I'm an asylum seeker, due to political reasons I had to leave my country because my life was in danger.
Matt Katz: Those are Kumar's words voiced by a translator. He left his home country of India in June 2018 and was placed in ICE custody after claiming asylum at the US Mexico border. In 2019, after being detained for a year, Kumar began a hunger strike to demand his release and the opportunity to wait for his asylum hearing outside of detention. Five weeks after his last meal government officials sought a judge's order to force feed him. He described the experience to The Intercept, and a warning, this description is disturbing.
Translator: As soon as he started inserting the tube in my nose, it went inside a little bit and then got stuck. When it got stuck, they started pushing it hard. I felt as if the tube was going down my throat, tearing up the insides and blood started coming from my mouth and nose.
Matt Katz: This is a practice that is widely condemned by medical professionals like the American Medical Association and the United Nations has said that force feeding hunger strikers could violate the UN Convention against torture. Joining me now are the reporters who obtained this video and investigated this story. Travis Mannon, an investigative video journalist for The Intercept and José Olivares, a lead producer for The Intercept. José, Travis, thanks to you both for joining us. Talk about this.
José Olivares: Thanks for having us.
Travis Mannon: Thanks for having us.
Matt Katz: Travis. A few years ago I reported on an immigrant who was detained in New Jersey. He was a hunger striker seeking release while fighting his asylum claim and he was transferred to the same facility in El Paso expressly for the purposes of force feeding him. He had actually heard The Takeaway from his jail cell when I was guest hosting, this is back in 2019, and we were doing a segment about force feeding and he then contacted me at the WN YC newsroom. I later did a segment about him and his experience on The Takeaway but I could only rely on the man's accounts and the documents he showed me to indicate he was force fed multiple times a day.
Now you guys have gone a major step further to uncover this secret government practice that's often likened to torture. You got the first public video of a federally sanctioned force feeding by the US government. What did it take to get this video released?
Travis Mannon: I first heard about this story back near the end of 2019. I spoke with an immigrant advocate named Nathan Craig, Ajay's sponsor basically. He told me the story of Ajay Kumar and how he had just been on hunger strike and was forced fed. With Ajay's consent he signed a privacy waiver. We filed a freedom of information request to the federal government in January of 2020. They initially denied the request. We filed an appeal and then we just never heard from them again. We sent a demand letter. They did not respond so we eventually sued them in federal court in the Southern District of New York and they decided to give us the footage then.
Matt Katz: Briefly walk us through what this footage shows. Walk us through Ajay Kumar's story of his hunger strike and then what led to him being force fed.
Travis Mannon: Ajay Kumar arrived in the country I believe in June, 2018. He handed himself over to border patrol and he was transferred around to a bunch of different places, eventually ending in Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico.
He was facing all discrimination and mistreatment in there. They were serving the Indian detainees with a utensil that was used for beef. Beef is prohibited in their religion. He wasn't able to get any books of his religion, all sorts of mistreatment that he faced there. When he protested he said they were putting him in solitary confinement.
Eventually after almost a year in detention he decided to go on hunger strike to protest his conditions, to protest his indefinite detention. After about a month, I think it's about 37 days from his final hunger strike, they got a court order to force feed him.
They went to a federal court and got the approval for it. The video that we got,, it's about an hour long and it actually shows three different attempts to place what they call a nasogastric tube, which is a tube that goes through your nose into your stomach. It took three different attempts to place the tube. The first two attempts essentially coiled in his esophagus and so they had to put it in and take it out twice before finally getting it in a third time.
Matt Katz: Incredible. Then it's difficult to watch this video but also I think important for people to understand this is happening. José do we know how common force feeding is among immigrant hunger strikers in US government detention centers?
José Olivares: That's the thing about this procedure and other involuntary medical procedures that take place in ICE detention is they're so secretive that it's really, really difficult to tell how much this is happening, how frequently this is happening. What we were able to find out with our reporting by looking through different ICE records and news reports is that in 2019, the year that Ajay was force fed at the El Paso Service processing Center, based on what we know there were 13 known force feedings. A lot of these cases, a lot of these procedures the court orders or the court procedures, the documents are held under seals. It's very secretive.
ICE is not going out and public putting out public information about this procedure taking place. It's so secretive that it really is difficult to understand and to know the scope of how frequently this is happening. The ACOU and Physicians for human rights they were able to do some investigating and they put out a report essentially looking for around 1,400 cases tens of thousands of pages of documents looking at ICE's response to hunger strikers. Some of the tactics that ICE uses, I guess, in response to hunger striking, it's not just force feeding. It's also forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization. Again, all these procedures, all these involuntary procedures are so secretive that it's really difficult to understand the actual scope of how of how much this is happening.
Matt Katz: José< is it unique that ICE Force feeds people who are awaiting deportation proceedings and on hunger strike? Do other law enforcement agencies do this against criminally charged inmates who are maybe on hunger strike for other reasons?
José Olivares: This doesn't just happen in ICE detention facilities. It also happens at federal prisons that are run by the Justice Department, by the Bureau of Prisons. It also happens at state prisons. One of the stories that we were able to look into that we were investigating is a story from Wisconsin from a state prisoner who was force fed in that prison because he was on hunger strike after spending prolonged time in solitary confinement. This is happening throughout the country. This is happening at the state level and obviously at the federal level as well including within ICE detention.
Again, this process is so secretive that it's really, really difficult to understand the scope of it at the federal level. Obviously the most infamous case force feeding is the Guantanamo force feedings that took place in 2013. Just the international outcry when that was taking place at the Guantanamo Prison facility, we see those cases and they're big and they can cause a lot of waves but it really is difficult to understand what the scope of it is because it's so secretive in the US government really does keep a tight lid on it.
Matt Katz: On that note José, have you figured out if there are other interventions that ethicists, medical professionals would suggest for people who are on hunger strike? People don't want to let them wither away and die in custody. What are some alternatives?
José Olivares: That's an interesting question that we discussed with some sources. We spoke with a medical ethicist and we spoke with a doctor who were able to tell us exactly what happens in this situation. Someone is on hunger strike, someone's health is clearly declining. They're clearly degenerating before people's eyes.
What is the alternative to what is happening? I think the important thing to note here is that doctors, ethically, their alliance always has to be with the patient. One of the medical ethicists that we spoke with, they said that someone with capacity, if they're deciding they are not going to eat, if they're on hunger strike, that is their right to do so. Someone on hunger strike, that is their right to protest.
Someone with capacity, it is extremely medically unethical to force feed someone and to do these involuntary procedures without their consent. I think in Ajay's case in particular that's one pretty jarring because he was an asylum seeker, he hadn't committed any crimes. He was waiting for his civil case, his civil immigration case to go through, and he had been in detention for over a year. Frequently, asylum seekers, they can be released to the community, they are able to fight their cases while working, while out in the community, while contributing to society. They don't have to complete their cases or wait for their day in court while in ICE detention. That's the only thing that Ajay was demanding. That's the only thing he was asking for.
Instead of force-feeding, ICE or the immigration courts, they could've easily said, "Well, we're going to look at your demands, and we're going to release you into the community so you can continue fighting your case like we do for thousands of people every year." That was the main thing here, is he wasn't in criminal detention, he wasn't in indefinite detention, he was in civil detention just waiting for his immigration case for his asylum case to continue through the courts. That could've happened while he was outside of detention.
Matt Katz: Travis, Ajay survived what he described as an experience of torture. How is he now? Where is he? What are his plans for the future?
Travis Mannon: He's currently living in California. He's out of detention. They released him not too long after the video took place, about a month later. He's living in California, he's waiting his asylum claim. He filed an appeal and won the appeal, and so, basically, his asylum case starts over. He doesn't have any hearings coming up, but he's just waiting, he's working, he's doing Instacart and DoorDash, just trying to live his life.
Matt Katz: Travis Mannon is an investigative video journalist for The Intercept, and José Olivares is a lead producer for The Intercept. Travis, José, thank you both for being here, and thanks so much for your reporting.
Travis Mannon: Thank you so much for having us.
José Olivares: Thanks for having us.
Matt Katz: Just a note, we've reached out to ICE for comment. They said they could not comment on the case specifically but pointed us to their website for detailed information about the processes to which ICE personnel adhere. We'll have that link at thetakeaway.org.
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