OPINION: With the COVID-19 Pandemic Devastating Communities, We Need to Ban Private Immigration Prisons Now More than Ever

by Hannah Woerner

As Washington State struggles to slow the spread of COVID-19, crowded prisons and detention facilities remain an unaddressed public health threat. At the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC)—an immigration detention facility in Tacoma run by private prison company GEO Group under a contract with the federal government—several individuals have been released from confinement after detained people with chronic medical conditions sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Reducing populations confined within private immigration prisons is a stop-gap measure, however. To truly protect the health, safety, and dignity of our community members, we need a full ban on private detention in Washington State.

During a global pandemic, it is imperative that we protect the health and safety of both incarcerated people and the wider community outside prison walls. Yet, private prisons and detention facilities cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of community health. Private prison companies maximize profits by slashing basic nutrition and healthcare services, resulting in more dangerous and unsanitary conditions compared to public facilities. To make matters worse, private prison companies are unaccountable to the public for such abuses, as they deny the public access to records regarding prison operations. For years, grassroots community organization La Resistencia (formerly NWDC Resistance) has been sounding the alarm over rampant medical negligence at the NWDC and fighting to shut down the facility. Uncontrolled outbreaks of varicella (the virus that causes chickenpox) have occurred within the NWDC at least four times in the past few years. Faced with an imminent outbreak of COVID-19, people locked up within the NWDC recently went on hunger strike to call attention to abusive conditions—including lack of medical care, hygiene, and other preventative measures against infection—and to demand their release.

Oversight of private immigration prisons is not enough. Even if more people confined within the NWDC are released in response to this pandemic, inadequate medical care and unsanitary conditions will continue to plague the facility moving forward. Private prison operator GEO Group routinely fails to comply with federal health and safety standards for detention, and then blocks state regulators from investigating human rights abuses. In California, state law requires the California Department of Justice to inspect conditions within private immigration prisons and review private facilities’ compliance with federal health and safety standards. At the Adelanto ICE Processing Center—a private immigration prison in California run by GEO Group—state investigators requested access to the facility for a comprehensive two-week site visit that would include in-depth interviews with detained people and facility staff; instead, they were provided a one-day tour and no interviews.

Conditions at GEO Group’s Adelanto facility remain so alarming that a federal judge recently ordered the release of two detained people because GEO Group and ICE did not take adequate measures to protect them from COVID-19 infection. In Washington State, GEO Group has already demonstrated that it will buck state regulators when it comes to paying detained workers the state minimum wage—we cannot expect GEO Group to cooperate with state oversight of its private immigration prison in Tacoma any better than it did in California.

In the end, nothing short of a full ban on private prisons and detention facilities will adequately protect our communities. This past legislative session, lawmakers in Olympia took important steps in the right direction by passing a trio of bills related to private detention that enhance public health and safety in the state. The first bill (SB 6442), sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) and also championed by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-White Center), severely restricts the ability of the Department of Corrections to transfer individuals serving state prison sentences to out-of-state private prisons. The second bill (HB 2576), sponsored by Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Mukilteo), requires the state Department of Health to gather more information about conditions within private detention facilities like the NWDC and recommend necessary changes to state law and policy to better protect public health and safety.

Lastly, HB 2640, sponsored by Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma), clarifies that the NWDC is not an “essential public facility,” giving the City of Tacoma greater authority to block any proposed expansions of the detention center. Such incremental policy changes provide protections for impacted community members, but we need a stronger solution that eradicates unaccountable private facilities.

Detention should not equal a death sentence. People confined within the NWDC are in a race against the clock to receive humane care and protection against COVID-19 infection. As the federal government and its private prison contractor GEO Group continue to ignore their plight, Washington State needs to intervene to protect the health and safety of state residents by banning private immigration prisons. State leaders must take these actions proactively rather than waiting to respond to an outbreak when it may be too late.

Hannah Woerner is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a statewide non-profit legal advocacy organization serving people who are incarcerated in Washington jails, prisons, and detention centers.         

Featured image by The Common Language Project