“It still looks beautiful. I love Portland. Portland is nice, man,” Paulino Ruiz Hernandez says one morning in front of the Edith Wyatt Federal Building. Born in Michoacán, Mexico and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Paulino has spent almost eight years behind bars, two of which were served at Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington.

Photo by Alex Stonehill / The Seattle Globalist

NWDC is comprised of a cluster of gray buildings next to a composite panel manufacturer in the shipping yards at the Port of Tacoma. Operated under contract by GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, NWDC is where people in Oregon are sent when they are caught up in the immigration system.

GEO Group took over operation of NWDC under contract from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2006, and the center is able to accommodate up to 1,575 inmates.

Since prison contractors like GEO Group receive federal money for each person they house, it’s in their interest to keep their bunks occupied. Lobbyists for companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group have drafted nasty racial profiling laws, like Arizona’s S.B. 1070, and pushed for increasing criminalization, raising the severity of certain offenses and lengthening prison sentences.

“Immigration law is so complicated,” Paulino explains, “it keeps on changing, and every year they add more crimes to that qualifying list of aggravated felonies. It makes it hard for people to fight and keep your status. It’s just really complicated.”

This is something that Paulino knows about all too well, after a drunken argument with a convenience store clerk in January of 2008 ended with Paulino grabbing a pack of cigarettes and walking out in defiance.

The offense would later be elevated to a robbery, therefore classifying it as an aggravated felony, and although Paulino has been a permanent resident since 1996, his status was now in danger of being revoked.

“I was not eligible to qualify for certain relief, which is called Cancellation of Removal to keep my permanent residence, because I was charged with an aggravated felony under immigration law. That’s what disqualified me from a lot of things.”

So into the system he went, serving his sentence at a number of locations including incarceration facilities in Arizona and New Mexico. Although he already had a friend inside of NWDC who told him what is was going to be like when he got there, he was still shocked to see upon arriving just how much worse it was than the state prisons. It was not uncommon to hear the guards use racial slurs like “wetback”, and to mock inmates for their inability to speak English.

“It was completely different than prison because the respect levels of the staff members. It’s really disrespectful, really racist, a lot of discrimination…incarceration is still incarceration, but at the same time, these immigration detention centers are something different.”

Trying to make the best of his situation, Paulino spent almost every day in the library researching his case, reading the Constitution, and studying books on advocacy, immigration, and activism. He learned about bonds that he and his fellow inmates qualified for but noticed that they were all being denied. Paulino knew that they would need to do something drastic to bring attention to the conditions inside NWDC.

“My main concern there was that a lot of people weren’t getting any relief, they weren’t getting released. So that’s when I got things together, talked to some people, some other people talked to me, and we decided to go on a hunger strike and take it to those extremes because things weren’t changing.”

So Paulino and his fellow inmates began planning what would be the first of three hunger strikes, starting in October of 2013. They talked to other inmates in church about the strike and would confirm plans as they briefly passed one another in the hallways. Paulino instructed his friends to tell their families to post about it on Facebook to help spread the word outside of the detention center walls.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement , a person must resist eating for seventy-two hours before it’s considered a hunger strike. After this time they are evaluated by the medical staff and could be subject to isolation and other forms of punishment in order to end the strike. At one point the guards threatened Paulino with force-feeding, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to get involved. Although he wasn’t force-fed, Paulino was separated from the other inmates.

“Obviously, I got punished for it. I got put in solitary for it. They gave me 30 days.”

Paulino did his last hunger strike while in the segregation cell, and during the seventy-two hours the prison staff tried to coerce Paulino to end his strike.

“The guards kept on coming up like ‘What are you doing man? Nobody’s doing this no more!’ and I’d be like ‘I’m last of the Mohicans, man!’” he says, laughing and smiling.

After that Paulino was sent to NORCOR in The Dalles for three months as punishment, a move which drained his finances and made it impossible for him to have contact with anyone, including his lawyer.

“I had no legal access, I couldn’t get a hold of anyone.”

Paulino came close to being deported to Mexico, and immediately before his release last July he was being held near the border at Otero Detention Center in New Mexico. When he arrived in Washington he was greeted by a crowd of friends and family. Since then he has been busy trying to get his life back together so that he can get involved in helping others. He’s now waiting for his visa to be approved and has filed for a work permit.

But for Paulino, his status in this country has never been in question, and nor should it be.

“I’m Americanized but I don’t forget where I come from. I’m Latino, I’m Mexican, and that runs in my blood. But I also got American in me and I’ve been living here my whole life. I love this country and I love where I was born, but this is my home. This is where I grew up, where I was raised. It’s unjust to tell me or for somebody to say ‘You’re not from here’.

Now that he’s out of NWDC, Paulino is trying hard to use his experience in constructive ways and not let the past eight years behind bars bring him down. He hopes that others will open their eyes to the issues in this country, and urges people to not be discouraged by bigotry.

“I love this country, it’s a beautiful country, but there’s a lot of things that gotta change. We just gotta be informed about our rights. So everybody out there that’s listening to this, like we say, ‘Si Se Puede,’ we gotta stand up, man and fight for our rights. Because this is our home too.”