In 2019, Ajay Kumar, an asylum-seeker from India, began a hunger strike while in ICE detention to demand his release. In response, the U.S. government force-fed Kumar. The Intercept accessed footage of the force-feeding, a practice widely condemned by international organizations. This week on Intercepted, Travis Mannon, a video producer with The Intercept, breaks down what took place during the force-feeding and why this video is so significant: This is the first public video of a federally sanctioned force-feeding by the U.S. government. Mannon reports on Kumar’s time in ICE detention, the force-feeding he experienced, and the ethical questions surrounding the practice. Jose Olivares, lead producer for Intercepted, co-reported this story.

 

Travis Mannon: This episode of Intercepted includes disturbing material. Listener discretion is advised.

Dressed in a blue immigration jail outfit, Ajay Kumar was lying in a hospital bed in the detention center clinic. His beard was bushy and his arms thin. He had been on hunger strike, along with three others, for over a month. It was August 14, 2019. At 3:45 p.m., five correctional guards in riot gear entered the room.

Security team member: At this time, we will proceed to the medical infirmary where detainee Kumar Ajay is being held in. Team ready? [Indistinct sounds.]

TM: Kumar — an asylum seeker from India — had been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for over a year. He was on hunger strike, demanding his release.

Security team member: Detainee Kumar, I need you to comply with our staff, my team, to go ahead and do this medical procedure. Are you gonna comply? 

Ajay Kumar [in translation from Hindi]: So many people came and grabbed my legs and arms. I couldn’t move anything. They were well-equipped with helmets and jackets, and I did not even have the energy to stand up.

TM: Because Kumar hadn’t eaten in over a month, he was extremely weak. He had already lost over 20 pounds. The sight of the correctional officers scared him. But he knew the day had finally come: he was about to be force-fed by the U.S. government — a practice widely condemned as torture.

[Intercepted theme music.]

TM: This is Intercepted.

TM: I’m Travis Mannon, a video producer with The Intercept.

[Propulsive drum beats.]

TM: For the past few years, I’ve been working on Ajay Kumar’s story. In 2019, Kumar was force-fed while in ICE detention after being on a hunger strike for about 5 weeks. He was being held at the El Paso Service Processing Center, an immigration jail in Texas.

Historically, the federal government’s force-feeding procedures have been mired in secrecy. Video, court records, and medical records we reviewed in the case of the El Paso detention center provide a first-hand look at how the procedure is approved and executed.

The practice of force-feeding – widely criticized by medical associations and human rights organizations – was excruciating for Kumar.

I was able to access handheld camera footage of his force-feeding. This is the first time the public has ever seen a federally sanctioned force-feeding in a detention facility.

The video of the court-ordered force-feeding, nearly one hour long, shows five detention guards in riot gear, employed by Global Precision Systems, or GPS, a privately contracted security company. The guards introduce themselves to the camera in preparation for their “calculated use of force.” The guards enter the infirmary, where medical staff explain the procedure to Kumar through an interpreter on the phone. They then attempt to insert a feeding tube through his nose into his stomach. Medical officials failed to correctly insert the tube two times before successfully beginning the force-feeding.

According to ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards, whenever there is a “calculated use of force,” staff are required to use a handheld camera to record the incident. With Kumar’s consent, I requested the video through the Freedom of Information Act. After ICE refused to turn over the footage, The Intercept filed a lawsuit. ICE later agreed to turn over the footage, but the agency first redacted the faces and names of everyone who appears in the video, aside from Kumar.

We showed the footage to Ajay Kumar and four experts from universities and advocacy organizations.

Joanna Naples-Mitchell: The process of watching this hour-long video was excruciating, knowing what Ajay was going through. 

TM: Joanna Naples-Mitchell is the U.S research advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. She was one of the experts we asked to watch the video.

JNM: That was the thing that was perhaps most chilling about it, was this kind of quiet, pernicious nature of the violence that was present throughout this hour-long video. And having these officers standing around him, and just this tremendous power imbalance and asymmetry between him and them.

TM: We reached out to ICE with a detailed list of questions. ICE declined to comment for this story.

We also reached out to GPS, the private security firm. They didn’t respond to our request for comment.

[Foreboding droning music.]

AK: [In English.] I’ve come to the United States to save my life. [In translation.] I’m an asylum seeker. Due to political reasons, I had to leave my country because my life was in danger.

TM: Ajay Kumar left India in June 2018, eventually ending up at the U.S. border, where he declared his intention to seek political asylum. We’re using a voiceover actor for this episode since Kumar frequently spoke in Hindi during our interviews.

AK: As soon as I entered the U.S., I handed myself over to the Border Patrol. They then transferred me to many places; I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Where are they taking me? What is going to happen? They transferred me and finally, I reached New Mexico, the Otero County Processing Center.

TM: Kumar was then taken into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, expecting to be released as he awaited his asylum hearings. Instead, he languished in detention for nearly a year.

AK: After a few days, I started realizing that the guards weren’t treating us as well as they treated English speakers.

TM: Asylum-seekers, when placed in ICE custody, are fighting civil immigration cases. They have fled to the United States because they fear persecution or death in their home countries. They are, by all definitions, legal immigrants. 

Though they have a legal right to request asylum under U.S. law, asylum seekers are frequently placed in immigration jails indefinitely while pursuing their claims. On a case-by-case basis, some are released and able to fight their case from the outside. 

The data shows that there really is no need to detain asylum seekers. A recent analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that 99 out of 100 non-detained asylum seekers showed up for every court hearing in 2019.

Despite being placed in detention facilities while awaiting civil — not criminal — cases, asylum seekers face conditions identical to jails and prisons.

For Kumar, days passed, then weeks, without any indication of when he would be released from detention.

AK: If I asked for any book of my religion, they denied me. They treated us as if we were criminals.

TM: Kumar filed complaints in the detention center requesting staff respect Hindi detainees’ religious observations, including that their food not be cross-contaminated with beef, which is prohibited in the Hindu religion. 

In response, he said, Otero correctional staff would send him to solitary confinement before ICE transferred him to the El Paso facility to be force-fed. Detention center documents say he was put in solitary for a variety of reasons: “insolence toward a staff member,” “ being in an unauthorized area,” and “for observation claiming hunger strike.” No document specifies what Kumar allegedly did.

AK: Experiencing all this, I decided to oppose the mistreatment. But as soon as I started raising my voice against these things, they started keeping me less in the general ward, and more in solitary confinement.

They imprisoned me in the small room for 10 days at a time; for 15 days; for a week; for 22 days. If we count the total, then it was almost three months in solitary.

If I remember those nights, I will start crying right away. [Sighs.]

TM: The Otero County Processing Center is run by a private prison company: Management and Training Corporation, or MTC.

Nathan Craig: The private contractors, who are basically — their aim is to cut costs and try to extract profit out of this situation. These lead to dangerously bad conditions.

TM: That’s Nathan Craig, an anthropology professor at New Mexico State University. He’s been advocating for Kumar since the beginning.

NC: There’s poor sanitation, poor medical care. The conditions are very unpleasant, partly by design, partly by the extraction of profit.

Advocates for migrants have lodged a raft of complaints against the Otero County Processing Center, including over its use of solitary confinement. 

NC: We have private contractors who are at liberty to put people in solitary for prolonged periods of time. They are just some guy who has got a job there and they can put someone in the hole for 15 days. And the threats of this are a constant thing to keep people in line. There’s no privacy when you go to the bathroom, there’s no privacy when you take a shower, you’ve got 50 people living together in a pod. The quality of the food is very poor.

TM: We reached out to MTC, the private prison company that runs Otero, with detailed questions. They did not provide a comment for this story.

Even as he fought for better conditions, Kumar had requested to be released on bond while he pursued his asylum case. ICE kept him confined.

So he decided something drastic needed to be done. After nearly a year in ICE detention, Kumar ate his last meal on July 8, 2019, and began his hunger strike, along with three other Indian asylum seekers.

AK: [In English] The first few days … [in translation] When I started the hunger strike, for the first few days, my body was demanding food all the time — all the time. But after 10 to 12 days, my hunger stopped permanently. 

TM: The agency transferred him to the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas, an ICE jail operated by the prison firm GPS.

[Steady, propulsive music.]

TM: The El Paso Service Processing Center is a hub of federal government force-feeding. Kumar certainly wasn’t the first detainee to be force-fed at El Paso.

Records we reviewed show that in 2018 there were a total of 25 hunger strikes there. ICE responded to six of them with “the involuntary administration of fluids.” One ICE detainee was flown to El Paso from New Jersey to be force-fed in November 2018. Then, in early 2019, all eyes were on the El Paso immigration jail:

Judy Woodruff (from PBS NewsHour): Federal officials confirmed today that at least 15 detained migrants are staging hunger strikes around the country, and some are being force-fed.

Matt Katz (from The Takeaway from WNYC): ICE officials have since confirmed that 10 detainees are on a hunger strike in the El Paso facility, and nine of them are being force-fed under a court order issued by a federal judge in mid-January.

KTSM 9 News: Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement say 11 detainees at the local processing center are on a hunger strike, and it’s prompted officials to force-feed them. 

TM: In total — there were 40 hunger strikes in El Paso that year, according to an ICE facility report, with at least 13 force-feedings, including Kumar.

Before Kumar ever arrived in El Paso, human rights experts from the United Nations said that force-feeding violates the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Matt Wynia: If someone has capacity — they’re legally competent to make their own medical decisions — you cannot force-feed them.

TM: That’s Matt Wynia, a medical doctor and the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. Wynia, who was formerly the head of the Institute for Ethics at the American Medical Association, watched the video of Kumar’s force-feeding at our request.

MW: If they don’t have capacity, it gets more complicated. But someone with capacity, if you’re force-feeding them, it’s not a medical intervention, it’s a law enforcement intervention, and doctors do not have a place to use their skills and knowledge to be agents of the state for purposes of law enforcement, or for purposes of maintaining control of the prison population, or to try and break the hunger strike.

TM: Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights released a report about hunger strikers and ICE’s response in immigration detention.

Eunice Cho: We really wanted to look at what is happening in ICE detention facilities with respect to the treatment of people who are engaging in hunger strikes, because it is such an unknown practice. The public really doesn’t know about what is happening behind these closed doors in ICE detention when people engage in these hunger strikes. 

TM: That’s Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. She, along with Naples-Mitchell of Physicians for Human Rights, reviewed over 10,000 pages of documents, studying the cases of nearly 1,400 people on hunger strike.

They found that since 2012, ICE had been seeking and executing judicial orders for involuntary medical procedures — including a previously unknown force-feeding case from 2016 under the Obama Administration.

EC: We were able to find repeated patterns of abuse against people who are engaging in hunger strikes. We found instances of forced feeding, forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization — where needles are inserted into the urethra of somebody who is engaging in a hunger strike. We also found a number of other types of coercive activities by ICE officials, including solitary confinement without justification, retaliatory deportations and transfers of people despite clear medical risks, repeated use of excessive force like tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings against people who are engaging in hunger strikes, denial of basic privileges, restricting access to water, recreation, communication.

TM: Cho says these tactics can amount to torture and fail to address the issues that people are protesting. 

EC: I think it’s very important to remember that hunger striking is a form of protest that detained people take because they see no other options at this point. And we have to remember how coercive and how abusive the ICE detention system actually is in the first place. In the context of that, it may be that people have tried to do everything else possible, but it sometimes becomes an option of last resort because there is simply nothing else to do in terms of controlling one’s own bodily autonomy. 

TM: Force-feedings by DHS contractors have taken place at other jails across the country, not just the El Paso facility. In 2020, immigrants detained at two separate Louisiana detention centers were subjected to force-feeding. Just this year, in February, ICE force-fed a Yemeni man detained in Arizona.

JNM: This is a practice that has clearly been accepted by multiple administrations, regardless of political party.

TM: That’s Naples-Mitchell again from Physicians for Human Rights. 

JNM: It’s quite scary that this practice is accepted — it’s routinized within ICE policies and practices. And even though it’s clearly accepted, there’s also this veil of secrecy around how often it’s being used.

TM: About a week after he had started the hunger strike, Kumar was taken to the El Paso Service Processing Center.

U.S. Attorneys then sought a court order from a federal district judge to force-feed him. After the federal judge’s order came, a social worker concluded Kumar was “fully competent” to make decisions over his own medical care, according to court records we reviewed.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.

On August 14, at 3:45 p.m., staff inside the detention center began the process of force-feeding Kumar.

Security team member: I am in medical at the El Paso Service Processing Center, supervising the calculated use of force on detainee Kumar, Ajay —

TM: The video we obtained shows the infirmary. You can see three other hunger strikers in beds next to Kumar. Their faces are blurred.

AK: They wanted to force-feed me in front of them so that they would all start eating after seeing what was happening to me. 

Security team member: And GPS has authorized to assemble a calculated use of force team to subdue, apply arm and leg restraints, and command nasogastric insertion by medical staff — 

TM: The correctional officers, dressed in black riot gear, begin addressing the camera. Their faces were also blurred by ICE:

Security team member: My name is [bleeped out by ICE]. I’m a detention officer for team GPS. I am the number one man. My responsibilities are to pin the detainee, control the head, and if a weapon is produced, secure the weapon.

TM: After entering the room, as correctional officers begin to tighten restraints on Kumar, someone behind the camera instructs the lead security officer to remove the restraints and use their hands.

Security team member: Detainee Kumar, I need you to comply with our staff, my team, to go ahead and do this medical procedure. Are you going to comply? [Sounds of a voice coming over a walkie-talkie, and cross-talk in the background.]

Dr. Parveen Parmar: He was obviously so weak and so thin. He was in no position to fight.

TM: That’s Dr. Parveen Parmar, a doctor and an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Southern California, who reviewed the video.

In 2019, Parmar filed an affidavit after reviewing hundreds of Kumar’s medical records during the court process to force-feed him.

PP: I would say, as a physician, it was really, viscerally hard to watch the use of force. I was certainly medically unnecessary. I can clearly state it was medically unnecessary.

Medical team member: So this is just how we always do this procedure, in case there is necessary force. We do have a declaration for force-feeding.

TM: Michelle Iglesias, a family physician contracted by ICE, was present to oversee Kumar’s force-feeding, according to medical records and court testimony we reviewed.

When Kumar’s attorney attempted to stop the procedure from continuing, Iglesias defended the practice in federal court, though she did concede that force-feeding violates medical standards. 

She testified: “We can’t do that. In the private world, which is very different from being in a detention center, there’s different — there’s different policies. And we don’t do that in the private section.”

Here’s Naples-Mitchell from Physicians for Human Rights, again:

JNM: There’s absolutely no different standards for people who are detained, from people who are outside of the facility in terms of their fundamental rights. 

TM: And here’s Matt Wynia, the medical ethicist:

MW: In medicine, we fight against that pretty regularly for, I think, obvious reasons, because we, in our history, have seen that is a very dark path to go down where doctors are using their medical knowledge and skills to serve the interests of the state and of the court system.

TM: In the video, before the force-feeding begins, the doctor overseeing the procedure enters.

Medical team member: OK, I am the doctor here in the facility. If you can just let him know that we’re going to — if you can let me previously explain, we’re going to be inserting a nasogastric tube into his nose. 

TM: In the video, before the force-feeding begins, a woman who identifies herself as a “doctor” is present to oversee the procedure. Kumar told us that it was Dr. Iglesias.

When we reached her by phone, she referred all questions to ICE.

[Hollow, echoey music.]

TM: In the video, you see Kumar is given one last chance to avert the force-feeding. The doctor tells the interpreter to deliver a message to Kumar:

Medical team member: I want to make sure that he is as comfortable as possible. And, up until this point, he still has the opportunity to drink the protein supplement, as opposed to using the tube in his nose. 

TM: Kumar refuses.

AK: [Speaks in Hindi.] 

AK: [In translation, reflecting on that moment after the fact.] I told them: “It is not my decision that you force-feed me. I do not allow you to force-feed me.” But even after that, they did, so I had no option but to comply.

TM: The guards dressed in riot gear then hold Kumar down.

Security team member: This is for your safety and ours. 

AK: [In translation.] They say that: “We have come to make you feel safe.” What kind of safety were they trying to make me feel? Were they making me feel safe by strapping me down or by holding my legs and arms? Their statement of making me feel safe was a total lie.

TM: Two medical staff members wearing United States Public Health Service uniforms are seen performing the force-feeding. The two staffers are both employed by USPHS and the facility. When we reached one of them by phone, they directed our questions to ICE.

Health care in the facility is overseen by ICE’s Health Service Corps. But in ICE’s sprawling network of detention centers, the ground-level providers can be contracted from the USPHS or private providers — at times with multiple firms in the same facility. USPHS did not respond to our request for comment.

[Indistinct sounds from the video play.]

TM: The first staffer begins inserting the tube through Kumar’s left nostril, having him sip water to facilitate the insertion. Kumar complies with instructions.

AK: [In translation.] At first, I got scared seeing the tube, the tube that was almost as thick as my pinky finger, which they were going to put in my nose.

TM: The tube was about 6 millimeters thick, according to the notes written by the first staffer. By comparison, the tube used on Kumar was nearly twice as thick as the tubes used to force-feed detainees in Guantánamo, according to documents obtained by Al Jazeera.

[Indistinct sounds, then Kumar saying, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.”]

TM: As the tube is inserted, Kumar is in visible pain, his back arching as the officers hold him in position. 

AK: [In translation] 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. 

TM: Kumar is then guided to a wheelchair and taken for an X-ray to verify the tube’s correct placement.

The insertion was found to be “unsuccessful.”. The doctor overseeing the procedure later testified in court that the tube had coiled in his esophagus.

[Indistinct conversations, walkie-talkie crosstalk.]

TM: A medical staffer tells Kumar that they’ll need to redo the procedure, though by this point, they’ve ended the call with the interpreter, so the nurse mimes the action of removing and re-inserting the tube while explaining this to Kumar. He is then wheeled back to his bed, where a medical staffer begins removing the tube.

AK: Every time they dragged the tube out, it seemed that everything in my stomach was going to come out along with it. So it was just as painful as inserting the tube.

TM: First the nurse and then the doctor ask Kumar if he would like to break his hunger strike and drink the protein supplement. He refuses. 

The medical staff begin to perform the same procedure, inserting the tube into the same nostril.

Medical team member: Wanna drink it? Want the tube? Are you sure? 

Security team member: Get in position, team. 

[Indistinct movement.]

AK: As soon as they started the second time, it was more painful than the first, because my nose was already injured and the tube was going inside, tearing it again. So the second time was more painful than the first.

TM: Once again, the tube coiled in his esophagus. After they remove the tube for the second time, Kumar can be seen on the video bending over a container.

AK: [In translation.] Every time they took it out, it was as painful as inserting it. So, when they took it out, I had a lot of blood in my throat, which is why I had to vomit and they brought the trash can for me to spit out the blood. They asked me, “Would you like to continue the hunger strike?” I replied that: “You can torment as much as you want, you won’t be able to break my spirit.”

Kumar says that by this time, medical staff told him his left nostril was swelling from the previous two attempts. It wasn’t until the third attempt — in his right nostril this time — that the second USPHS medical staffer was able to reach his stomach with the tube.

PP: If you use a thinner, more flexible tube, you’re lubricating adequately or providing adequate anesthesia, you’re much more likely, if you do a procedure in that way, to get it right the first time, and not result in having to do it three different times

TM: Again, Dr. Parmar. 

PP: It’s incredibly painful. I’m not surprised he was vomiting blood because it’s a traumatic — it is traumatic to the nares and to the esophagus when you put in the tube, particularly multiple times, particularly if it’s a larger, more rigid tube.

TM: Medical staff then began pumping a nutritional shake through the tube. 

Here’s Kumar:

AK: If I don’t want to eat, that means I don’t want to eat. Then why are they forcibly trying to feed me? But I couldn’t do anything about it.

They told me, “We have an order. You can’t do anything about it. And if you want to stop the force-feeding, eat yourself.”

I didn’t want to stay there and they were forcibly feeding me. This is not humanity. This is totally against humanity.

Security team member: The time is 16:47 hours. The calculated use of force team entered the dayroom area and successfully placed the gastric insertion. So medical staff went ahead and completed the procedure — [Female voice in the background shouts “Bye guys!” to a chorus of others replying “bye” in return.] At this time, I’ll go ahead and conduct the debrief with the calculated use of force team. 

Security team member: I’m the team GPS detention officer. I was the number one man … [Fades out.]

TM: As ICE was trying to quietly continue its force-feeding of Ajay Kumar and the three other Indian asylum seekers, public pressure began to mount. On September 5, with his health condition improving, ICE paused Kumar’s force-feeding and removed the tube, according to court records.

Kumar, however, kept up his hunger strike and his health declined. 

Once again, U.S. Attorneys sought a judge’s approval to reinsert the tube and commence force-feeding. 

Here’s Nathan Craig, again, the New Mexico-based professor and immigration advocate:

NC: We tried to work with Ajay and other men to have the opportunity of some legal representation to oppose this order because the hunger strike is a protest, it’s not a medical condition, it is a political protest. But the orders are temporary. So if they want to continue force-feeding this person, they have to return to the court a second time.

TM: During the court battles between Kumar’s attorneys and the U.S. government, Dr. Parmar — one of the experts you’ve been hearing from — filed a court affidavit after reviewing nearly 500 pages of Kumar’s medical records. She reported that his health was declining and warned that the medical treatment he was receiving in ICE custody was: “Markedly below standard of care, and putting his life at risk.”

PP: I was so disturbed by the instability of his vital signs and how clearly he was getting progressively much more ill that I was very concerned he was going to lose his life. 

He wasn’t getting a basic standard of care for somebody as ill as he was. This just wasn’t the setting for somebody this ill.

TM: But the federal judge once again approved the procedure on September 12. According to Kumar and Craig, he was taken to a hospital, where staff inserted another tube — this time a much thinner one — and began to force-feed him.

[Soft xylophone sounds.]

TM: After continued protests and complaints by Kumar, his attorneys, and migrant advocates, ICE reached a deal with him a week later, and finally released him on September 26. 

Kumar’s hunger strike had lasted 76 days. In total, he lost 45 pounds.

In the first few months after his release, Kumar had recurring nightmares about solitary confinement, the hunger strike, and being subjected to force-feeding.

AK: [In translation.] Even when I slept, my dreams were related to the detention center. Even today, those dreams persist.

I requested them to give me my freedom. If they had accepted at that time, there would have been no need for all of this.

TM: Kumar now lives in California with his girlfriend. He delivers food for DoorDash and Instacart. At this point, he is still waiting for his immigration case to move through the courts. He says that when his asylum is finally granted, he plans to dedicate his time to helping other asylum seekers in detention. 

You can find the full story and video at theintercept.com.

[End credits music.]

TM: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer and co-reported this episode. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Kumar’s voiceover was performed by Imran Sheikh. This story was edited by senior editor Ali Gharib. Legal review by David Bralow. Roger Hodge is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/join — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you enjoy this podcast, please be sure to also check out Deconstructed, as well as Murderville.

If you’d like to give us feedback, email us at [email protected]

Thanks so much.

Until next time, I’m Travis Mannon.