OPINION: Bill May End Decades of Human Rights Violations at Immigration Detention Center

by Luna Reyna, columnist 

As we’ve reported in the past, the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) in Tacoma, Washington is run by GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the country. Accusations of human rights violations, followed by countless lawsuits, have remained constant since the facility was built over 20 years ago. Grassroots organizations like La Resistencia have been working for over five years to shut down the facility, and House Bill 1090 (HB 1090) may finally do just that. 

House leadership brought HB 1090, which would ban private for-profit detention facilities in the state, closer to becoming law with a majority vote in support of the bill on February 23. “Businesses should not be able to make profits on incarceration. Private, for-profit detention facilities place shareholder profits above all other priorities. These facilities are not accountable to the public. Government officials and advocates have sought information from private detention facilities, through the Freedom of Information Act, but have been turned down on the basis of trade secrets,” the House Bill Report reads. “The state has the authority and obligation to protect persons within its borders from human rights violations, even in the context of immigration enforcement. The government can address immigration enforcement without the use of private, for-profit detention facilities.”

In December of 2020 a University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) report regarding Human Rights Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC)  in Tacoma (the NWIPC was formerly called the NWDC) provided further proof of just how devastating the human rights violations at the facility have been, as well as the continued infringements on the rights of those who are brave enough to speak out or protest against the inhumane treatment by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group. “There were a few of us who were sent into segregation/isolation for admitting that we were participating in a hunger strike,” a person detained at NWIPC told the Emerald. This person, who we will call Olivia, revealed that they were told that they would be kept in solitary confinement until they started eating again. 

This is reportedly not uncommon at NWIPC. The UWCHR report revealed at least six more cases where “the reasons for a person’s placement in solitary was their participating in hunger strikes or other forms of constitutionally-protected free speech activities.” This included “disciplinary segregation for ‘inciting others in group demonstration’ or ‘inciting others to conduct work stoppage and strike.’”

Not only are those detained at NWIPC placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for protesting the facility conditions and their detention but according to the UWCHR report and ICE’s own data, those placed in solitary at the facility are subject to an average of 70 days in solitary, which is longer than any other facility in the nation. According to the UWCHR report (the report itself may be found here), which gathered data from the last seven years of ICE’s Segregation Review Management System (SRMS), over 80% of those subjected to solitary confinement at the NWIPC “experienced treatment that would be considered torture according to international human rights standards.”

In addition to utilizing solitary confinement in an attempt to silence the voices of those detained, ICE has also used solitary confinement to remove those who are dealing with mental health conditions from the rest of the population. According to the ICE SRMS from September 2013–March 2020, 34% of placements in solitary confinement “involved people whose records were flagged to indicate the person had been diagnosed with a mental illness.” According to UWCHR, “The longest placement of an individual in solitary confinement for reasons of mental illness was 147 days.” The average time spent in solitary for mental health reasons was approximately 38 days. “We haven’t done anything wrong and we are protesting our basic human rights. We miss our children,” Gabriela Perez, a woman detained at NWIPC explained in an interview with the Emerald. “I suffer from depression and mental health issues. Just being in here makes it worse.” 

But instead of receiving proper medical care, people at NWIPC are routinely ignored, according to UWCHR research, “either because GEO guards deny them permission to visit the medical clinic or, more frequently, because in the clinic, the medical staff belittles their concerns.” 

“Detainees that work in the medical clinic to clean up and they come back sick,” Olivia explained. “They have a fever, they don’t feel good, they’ve been coughing. It’s crazy because when you do go to the sick hall they ask you questions like, ‘Do you have a cough or a fever? Do you have a loss of taste or sense of smell?’ and even when people say yes to those questions they still put them back into our unit.”

According to UWCHR, NWIPC had the resources to test every person detained in the facility but chose not to do so. Similarly, in a case in Northern California where court documents state that ICE and GEO acted with “deliberate indifference in violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights” a federal judge ruled that the facility engaged in “conscious avoidance of widespread testing for fear that positive tests would require them to take measures to protect the safety of detainees that they preferred not to take.” 

ICE and GEO indifference to the health of those detained at NWIPC is reflected in the unsanitary conditions in which detainees are expected to live. “The officers don’t really clean, they just have the spray on stream instead of spray which doesn’t hit everywhere and they don’t wipe it up. A lot of us have been having allergic reactions to it,” Olivia explained. “The spray really affects some of us. It’s really hard to breathe sometimes. A lot of us get headaches.” Physicians for Human Rights has condemned the increased use of industrial disinfectants in enclosed spaces but ICE and GEO persist. “I felt dizzy just yesterday,” Olivia revealed. “I felt dizzy and lightheaded and then my nose started bleeding again. They just told me to look forward and let all the blood come out. I’ve been asking them what’s going on, because this has been really concerning. Every time I have a headache my nose bleeds and I’ve never experienced this before.”

While mental and physical health are important, sanitary living conditions are equally important for safe and dignified living. “The first unit I was in we found two worms that were moving inside of a potato,” Olivia explained, recounting a time there were worms in fruit cups as well. “There are flies coming out of the shower drain. The drains here are nasty. Black stuff just comes out. It’s so bad,” Olivia continued. HB 1090 acknowledges that evidence in reports like UWCHR and the many court cases over the years prove that private, for-profit detention facilities are more concerned with shareholder profits than the health, safety, and welfare of our most vulnerable Washingtonians. 

The only people who benefit from the incarceration of families are the companies who are profiting from immigrant detainment. “We don’t have to stay in here to fight our cases,” Perez said. “We can be out there with our families, with the resources that we need.” According to a 15-year study conducted from 2001 to 2016 by the American Immigration Council, 96% of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking asylum and were released from detention until their case could be seen in court showed up for their court hearings. Anti-immigrant rhetoric hangs on the theory that the only choice the U.S. has is to treat people like criminals and lock them up, but that is simply false. Less than one-quarter of all U.S. immigrants are unauthorized. 

This bill is simply an acknowledgment of the human rights violations that Washington State representatives have allowed ICE and GEO Group to maintain for over 20 years. Banning private, for-profit detention facilities in Washington State is a small step towards abandoning America’s legacy of profiting off of the bodies of People of Color. 

This Thursday March 11, the Senate Committee on Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation will hear House Bill 1090. 

Email, call, and Tweet the Senate Committee, and sign in “Pro” to urge them to vote YES on HB 1090.

Jeannie Darneille
(360) 786-7652

Perry Dozier
(360) 786-7630

Chris Gildon
(360) 786-7648

Jim McCune
(360) 786-7602

Joe Nguyen
(206) 503-4746

Rebecca Saldana
(360) 786-7688

Claire Wilson
(360) 786-7658

Luna Reyna is a South Seattle writer and broadcaster whose work has identified, supported, and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. She was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, and Talk Poverty. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa and Mexican heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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