Photo depicting the exterior of the Northwest Detention Center on a cloudy day.

‘These Are Not Detention Centers, These Are Prisons’: Hunger Strike Highlights Poor Conditions at NWDC

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

On Feb. 1, undocumented immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma went on a hunger strike to protest poor living conditions. Grassroots advocacy group La Resistencia reported that more than 115 detainees joined the protest, sparking a crackdown by detention center personnel, including alleged use of tear gas within the facility.

Hunger strikers appear to have won some victories, leading to a suspension of the protest. These include promises to provide real meat instead of a soy substitute, allow more frequent haircuts, better access to medical and dental care, and bringing in an outside contractor for janitorial service, said Maru Mora Villalpando, a community organizer with La Resistencia.

“It is a win for them, and it has to do a lot with the public pressure, for sure,” Mora Villalpando said.

NWDC is the largest detention center in the Pacific Northwest, detaining about 1,500 people who are targeted by immigration enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The center is operated by the company GEO Group.

Mora Villalpando said the protest initially started when detainees in two units at NWDC heard that GEO Group guards planned to take away their toiletries. The units, F3 and F4, decided to go on hunger strike. 

According to Mora Villalpando, GEO Group guards voluntarily left the units during the protest and later, when they tried to reenter, hunger strikers refused to allow them to go inside and demanded that ICE officers be sent instead to negotiate with the federal agency in lieu of a company intermediary. ICE refused this request, ordering GEO Group officers to crack down on the protest and use pepper spray and tear gas, Mora Villalpando said. Many of the leaders of the hunger strike were also put in solitary confinement, she said.

Mora Villalpando argued that the idea that ICE and GEO Group would use solitary confinement in civil detention was outrageous and reveals the true nature of NWDC.

“These are not detention centers; these are prisons,” she said. “The model is an entire prison. And they treat people like they are prisoners, yet they’re told they’re not prisoners. And that’s what hunger strikers — or even anyone, really, that they know — is that they say: ‘Well, we’re not prisoners, but why do they treat us like that?’”

In an email to Real Change, a spokesperson for ICE wrote that the agency discovered a comb with razor blades, which it considered contraband, and authorized non-lethal use of force after detainees refused to comply with orders. The ICE spokesperson also wrote that the agency “does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”

In a press release from La Resistencia, community organizers transmitted the hunger strikers’ demands, including calls for better food, sanitation, regular haircuts, and decent medical care.

Mora Villalpando said that the right to decent quality food was a common through line in the history of the hunger strikes. 

“I think that if you had the chance to read all the demands through all these years, you will see that the very first thing at the top is always food. It’s always about food. Every time, like, that’s the main thing, because that’s human nourishment,” Mora Villalpando said.

GEO Group and ICE have been criticized for poor living conditions in NWDC for years. The University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) released a whitepaper on Feb. 3 detailing sanitation and cleanliness issues in the facility, showing that ICE has known about issues for years yet failed to sanction their contractors. At one point, UWCHR researchers discovered, an ICE lawyer actually threatened to contact the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department if GEO Group didn’t improve janitorial services.

The research center also published a raft of investigations into issues such as food quality, laundry service, allegations of medical neglect, the use of solitary confinement, and a lack of reporting mechanisms for sexual abuse and assault. UWCHR Director Angelina Godoy said that, despite ICE’s claims, researchers have found that the agency does indeed retaliate against protestors.

“One of the issues is overuse of solitary, in the sense of just the length of time that people spend in solitary at that facility being just dramatically outside what is permitted under international human rights standards, and even dramatically outside the norm or the average for detention in the United States today,” Godoy said. “The other thing is the use of solitary as a means of punishing people or retaliating against people who engage in constitutionally protected activities, like hunger strikes, which are a form of political expression.”

Godoy added NWDC holds people in solitary confinement for much longer than other comparable detention centers.

The Washington State Legislature has taken action in recent years to address some of these concerns with immigration detention and enforcement. 

In 2019, the State passed the Keep Washington Working Act, which bars law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement. Then in 2021, the Legislature passed a law banning private detention centers, including NWDC, from operating in the state. However, the bill has been mired in litigation, and a 2022 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a similar California law suggests that the battle to close NWDC will continue.

This year, the Legislature is considering two bills to limit the use of detention: House Bill (HB) 1470, which would allow the State health department to conduct inspections of detention centers, and Senate Bill 5270, which would limit cooperation between ICE and the State Department of Corrections (DOC).

State Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Edmonds), the sponsor of HB 1470, said that the state has a responsibility to look out for people within NWDC. 

“The people that are in that facility are very vulnerable,” Ortiz-Self said. “They can’t be ignored; you can’t just pretend we don’t hear this. And I think all of us as Washingtonians, when we hear that people are going through hunger strikes or being abused or going without basic needs, and the organization’s refusing transparency, refusing to prove that they’re wrong — they just deny it — I think we need an outcry that says, ‘Not in our Washington.’ You don’t get to come into our Washington and treat people inhumanely.”

Another legal battle between the State and GEO Group is over compensation to detained workers who participated in the company’s “Voluntary Work Program” (VWP). The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) sued the company for paying workers as little as $1 a day, far below the state’s minimum wage. In November 2021, a jury awarded detainees $23 million in damages and back pay for unpaid wages. However, the ruling is being appealed, delaying the payments.

Because of the requirement to pay minimum wage, GEO Group suspended the VWP in NWDC, which has led to a deterioration of conditions since the company relied upon detainees to maintain the facility and food service operations, La Resistencia said. In an email, a spokesperson for AGO wrote that the office has written to the Biden administration about the conditions at the facility and “will be looking into the details of these very serious allegations.”

A spokesperson from GEO Group confirmed the use of chemical agents to suppress the detainees, but rejected La Resistencia’s claims, writing that they are politically motivated. 

“We strongly reject these allegations, which are clearly part of a politically motivated and choreographed effort to abolish ICE,” the spokesperson wrote. The company also criticized the AGO’s minimum wage lawsuit, blaming the State for causing the suspension of the VWP.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: More than 115 detainees at the privately operated Northwest Detention Center went on hunger strike earlier this month. Advocates with La Resistencia said ICE and GEO Group treat the detainees like prisoners, despite them not serving criminal sentences. Photo is attributed to clpmag (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!