I first heard about the Northwest Detention Center during an interview we filmed with Jeannie Darnielle, Washington State Senator for the 27th District. She mentioned the existence of a for-profit prison on the Tacoma Tideflats, an industrial area which includes the Port of Tacoma. Darnielle mentioned that construction of residential buildings on the Tideflats is prohibited, with the exception of the prison. The reason is because Tideflats land is unsuitable for residential construction: it's made of artificial fill, at risk for liquefaction during a major earthquake, and is also in the direct path of lahar (destructive mudflows) that could occur in event that Mt. Rainier erupts.
Historically heavily-contaminated by industries that were once located there, the Tideflats is considered a “sacrifice zone”, a geographic zone that has been permanently impaired by environmental damage. Despite decades and millions of dollars spent on remediation, the city approved plans to build the largest methanol plant in the world at a site not far from the NWDC (the plan was defeated by grassroots opposition) and the construction of a liquified natural gas (LNG) production facility. It makes sense that a for-profit detention facility would be located here, following the "sacrifice zone" principle that some geographic areas and people need to be sacrificed for the smooth operation of capitalism.
The nondescript detention facility is in a low traffic area and out of public view. It could be easily mistaken for a large warehouse except for the high chainlink fence topped with razor wire. The prison is owned and operated by the GEO group, the second largest for-profit prison corporation in the country.
The 2014 Hunger Strike
In March 2014, detainees began a hunger strike to protest conditions that Congressman Adam Smith described as “shocking”. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the hunger strike involved 750 detainees, but activists report that actually 1,200 detainees were at involved in the hunger strike over a period of 56 days. The detainees were protesting inedible meals, inadequate medical care including delays or refusal to treat life-threatening and painful conditions, poor pay for menial labor (inmates were given the opportunity to do custodial work “voluntarily” for $1/day, although threats and intimidation from guards may have been used to coerce inmates to participate), exorbitant prices charged at the commissary ($8.95 for a bottle of shampoo, for example), and a lack of fundamental fairness and justice. Protesters were subjected to rigged hearings under false accusations. Solitary confinement lasting between 2-30 days and prison transfers were used against detainees as retribution for the protest.
In an interview in the Seattle publication The Stranger, detainee Angel Padilla described how he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left kidney in December 2015. A urologist at St Joseph’s Medical Center recommended urgent surgery for Stage 3 kidney cancer but this was denied for several months. Finally, an immigration court decision allowed him to leave the detention center if he posted bond. After his family raised over $16,000 through crowdfunding, he was able to post bond and have his surgery on May 3, 2016.
What makes this inhumane and exploitative treatment of immigrant detainees even more outrageous is that immigration violations are a civil, not a criminal, matter. The reason undocumented immigrants are detained is NOT to punish them for crimes, but to ensure that they are present for deportation proceedings before a federal immigration judge. Many immigrants are arrested following minor infractions, such as traffic offenses. A 2009 ICE internal review found that only 11 percent of detainees had been convicted of violent crimes. Nevertheless, in detention they are treated like dangerous criminals, as evidenced by NWDC’s evacuation plan in the event of a tsunami: “In the event of a mass evacuation, all transportation vehicles should arrive equipped with full set of restraints, handcuffs, belly chains and leg irons to appropriately restrain all residents being transported.” In the event of a tsunami or any other major catastrophe, I highly doubt that 1,500 detainees could be evacuated to safety quickly enough while efforts are being made to restrain everyone.
The Bed Mandate
In 2006 a congressional directive known as the Bed Mandate established a quota for the number of people held in immigration detention centers throughout the country. The policy requires ICE to maintain a population of 34,000 detainees per day. The directive was instituted by conservative lawmakers who thought that ICE was not doing enough to deport undocumented immigrants. It has been criticized for creating an incentive to seek out and incarcerate immigrants for minor nonviolent offenses. Since nearly two-thirds of immigrant detention beds are privatized, the policy was a boon for the private prison industry. As part of its contract with ICE, GEO Group is guaranteed payment for 1000 beds at the NWDC.
Last year, the Department of Justice decided to phase out the privatization of federal prisons in the criminal justice system, because studies demonstrated that they were more dangerous than those run by the Bureau of Prisons. This decision does not apply however to the civil immigration detention system which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2015, Congressman Adam Smith introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, legistlation which would have created enforceable standards and improve conditions at immigration detention centers while encouraging alternatives to detention and the repeal of the detention bed mandate. Community-based alternatives to incarceration such as home detention would be more humane and less expensive than incarceration. Unfortunately, it looks like incarceration followed by deportation will still be the preferred methods of dealing with undocumented immigrants under President Trump. As more attention and resources are allocated toward detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, the private immigration detention industry is expected to profit handsomely, at a high cost to taxpayers, detainees, and their families.