By Ridley Seawood and Alexa Villatoro
For years, Washington’s only immigration detention facility, the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), also known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center, has amassed considerable criticism on its operations. The heavily debated conditions include illegal minimum wages, contaminated meals, unlawful use of solitary confinement and poor medical care. Since the opening of the facility in 2004, detainees, their family members, civil rights activists, state and local attorneys, community members, and academics have persisted in a largely collaborative opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and private prison contractor GEO Group, who together manage the detention center.
The recent signing of Washington House Bill 1090 into law will ban most for-profit prisons in the state. The only facility currently operating that would be effectively shut down under House Bill 1090 is the Northwest Detention Center. Under the new law, the facility is slated for closure in 2025 when ICE’s contract with GEO Group expires. The bill is facing pushback from GEO Group as they move to block the bill in the courts. The future of the people who will remain in the facility when it closes is still uncertain.
In the midst of this battle, Geo Group is also facing a separate lawsuit brought by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office for allegedly paying detainee workers far below minimum wage. The trial on that case began June 1.
A Toxic History
Previous to the NWDC’s creation in Tacoma, Seattle’s Immigration Station and Assay Office held the largest population of immigrant detainees in Washington. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the precursor to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE created in the wake of 9/11, the original detention center had failed to meet basic safety standards and needed an expansion to meet a projected increased detention rate.
In a 2000 public meeting administered by the INS intended to “allow public input to the National Environmental Policy Act review process”, documents recall no government agency representatives, non-governmental organizations, or the general public present. There were also limited efforts to publicize the meeting: verbal invitations to government authorities and an ad in the newspaper.
It was then that officials found expansion of the existing facility too costly an option, choosing instead to privately contract the new facility.
In 2003, the Tacoma City Council passed a resolution supporting the Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) to build a detention center within its city limits. CSC was acquired by GEO Group in 2005 and continued management of the facility. The resolution only supported construction on a remediated Superfund site zoned for non-residential industrial use. Superfund sites are highly contaminated areas being managed by the federal government for clean-up because of the related human health threats and concerns they may pose.
A large tract of industrial land on East J Street was one of two sites originally being considered for the detention center. It wasn’t initially regarded as the preferred alternative by the INS itself, but city officials declined the proposal to establish the new facility at the second site, near Taylor Way. Taylor Way had already been reserved for city port expansion, was home to several businesses, and residents had complained the new facility would be too close to their neighborhoods. Then Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps is noted as saying “Tacoma will make every possible effort to keep the INS from constructing a facility on this site,” according to the News Tribune. Later, INS would change its position, classifying neither as a preferable. Subsequently, CSC constructed the facility on East J Street in 2005.
In ‘Site Fight’, an academic critique of the NWDC, Megan Ybarra, an associate professor of Geography at the University of Washington, says the removal of the detainees from the city center in Seattle to Tacoma made the facility remote, making it difficult to access familial and legal support. The remote location of the center prevents immigrants from physically accessing lawyers and organizations that help them mount a successful legal defense. It also leaves the reality of detention and the immigration system invisible to anyone not immediately affected.
Resistance from Inside and Outside
Detainees at the NWDC have voiced complaints to family, community and legal advocates that include illegal minimum wages, non-nutritious foods that detainees claim include rocks and other objects, high commissary prices for basic necessities, poor medical care, lack of access to bond hearings, and obstruction to legal due process. To protest conditions, detainees at the facility have organized hunger strikes, some lasting over 100 days.
La Resistencia, formerly known as NWDC Resistance, is a grassroots organization that advocates for the closure of the NWDC. According to Maru Villalpando, an immigrant and lead organizer within La Resistencia, there may have been hunger strikes at the NWDC as early as 2007 or before. She recalls hearing of a few hunger strikes between 2007 and 2009, however due to not having coordinated outside support, the strikes were not well covered by the press.
On February 24, 2014 La Resistencia, in solidarity with detained immigrants, staged a lockdown action–preventing two vans and a bus filled with people scheduled for deportation from reaching the Seattle-Tacoma airport. According to Ybarra, who is also a former organizer with La Resistencia, detainees from another van witnessed the action and by March 7, 1200 immigrants held in the NWDC were on hunger strike. The hunger strikers asked family members to reach out to local news outlets who covered the February action, which allowed the strikers to connect with La Resistencia.
Since 2014, most of the hunger strikes at the facility have been publicized and supported by La Resistencia, leading to a larger local and national focus.
“The food is part of the punishment”
Victor Fonseca, an immigrant detainee from Venezuela who has been incarcerated at the NWDC for nearly two years, has been on a hunger strike for over 100 days. He says part of his motivation for doing so, besides demanding immediate release for violation of his basic human rights, is that the meals are often inedible. According to Fonseca, he signed an agreement allowing for his legal deportation before being brought to the facility but remains incarcerated without explanation.
As detainees continue to protest the quality of the food at the facility, detainees and their supporters claim that in response to pressure, the center will only improve food conditions for a week or so before meals return to a poor state. In a video chat with Perilous, Fonseca says that the lack of action by GEO Group to address the quality of the food is because it is a “part of the punishment.”
In 2007, a food poisoning outbreak at the facility affected approximately 300 detainees, nearly a third of the total population. According to a 2008 report published by Seattle University School of Law entitled Voices from Detention, the outbreak was a result of the facility ignoring food safety standards. Additionally, multiple detainees surveyed noted health concerns from non-nutritious meals. One person featured in the report was prescribed fresh fruit after his health declined significantly after nearly 4 years at the facility.
In a 2019 memorandum from the City of Tacoma, the city manager’s office noted that despite concerns about the food quality at the facility, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s “regulatory role of the Northwest Detention Center is limited to inspecting food preparation and service at the request of the NWDC.” The memorandum added that despite some yearly unannounced inspections, the department had been “unable to substantiate any of the food contamination complaints they’ve received.”
Yet, reports from detainees currently in the NWDC, and those who have only recently left, claim conditions remain dire. According to a legal document prepared by La Resistencia in Washington State’s lawsuit against GEO Group for its wage violations, detainees have repeatedly called La Resistencia to complain about maggots in their food. The document adds that the claims were substantiated in 2019 when a detainee showed one of La Resistencia’s volunteer attorneys a maggot he had found in his meal. Years before, in 2014, another had brought a cockroach to show volunteer attorneys.
Sizing portions of food has been another source of concern. The Voices from Detention report also stated that despite a contractual agreement between ICE and GEO Group to provide well balanced meals in quantities compliant with the Recommended Daily Allowances set by the National Academy of Sciences, meals do not meet standards. Due to the inadequate portions and lack of nutrition in the meals provided by GEO Group, detainees often support their diets with foods from the commissary, which sell at high prices. According to Manuel Abrego, a current organizer with La Resistencia who was formerly detained at the NWDC, through the commissary a pack of Ramen noodles sells for $5.
“This facility is run by detainees”
In March 2014, Hassal Moses, a U.S. Army veteran who was formerly detained at the NWDC, wrote an open letter while still inside the facility. He called for a work stoppage among the people held there.
“This facility is run by detainees,” said Moses, “if everybody stopped working then we could negotiate a pay raise.”
Moses had been inspired to write the letter after detainees at the facility launched multiple hunger strikes in early 2014. In an interview with his attorney at the time, Moses noted that hunger strikes were a step in the right direction but that he wanted to try a tactic that didn’t directly affect the health of those participating. He was sent to solitary confinement shortly after releasing the letter.
Despite the failed work stoppage, hunger strikes have remained a powerful tool for drawing attention to the conditions within the facility. For detainees voicing their concerns and committing to collective organizing, retaliation from ICE and GEO Group can be an all too possible reality.
Three years later, in 2017, the Civil Rights Unit of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office sued GEO Group for violating the state’s minimum wage law. According to the suit, detained workers are not exempt from state minimum wage laws and should have been paid $11 per hour at minimum. The NWDC continues to pay detainee workers either $1 a day, or sometimes pays them only in snacks. The minimum wage in Washington has since been raised to $13.69 per hour.
The state attorney alleged that GEO Group “relies upon detainee labor to operate NWDC” and that “GEO receives and has received the benefit of having necessary work done at NWDC without bearing the financial burden of paying the minimum wage to those who perform such work.”
The lawsuit is ongoing and trial began June 1, according to court records.
Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers
In 2014 the Washington ACLU alongside Columbia Legal Services (CLS) filed a lawsuit alleging ICE had sent 20 detainees who were on hunger strike to solitary confinement just three days after they began refusing meals. According to the ACLU, when the strikers were invited to meet with an assistant warden to discuss the situation, those who showed up were immediately handcuffed and sent to solitary confinement.
The use of “administrative segregation,” a form of solitary confinement, isn’t subject to due process because it is supposed to be non-punitive. However, the ACLU lawsuit alleged that in the case in question administrative segregation had been used as “punishment and retaliation for engaging in constitutionally protected free speech activities.”
The lawsuit was later voluntarily dismissed after detainees announced an end to a hunger strike and those being held in solitary confinement were released. This was one of several lawsuits that have been filed by the Washington ACLU against ICE regarding conditions at the NWDC. There have been several instances in which detainees claim that guards retaliated against them for participating in protest activity.
Following a hunger strike in February 2017 that involved 120 immigrants, Jesus Chavez Flores claimed he was singled out as a leader and “hit, injured and unfairly punished.” According to the ACLU, Flores was placed in solitary confinement for 20 days after being punched by a GEO guard in retaliation for his participation in the strike.
Other current and former detainees also reported facing retaliation for protesting. In an interview, former NWDC detainee Manuel Abrego told Perilous how he also faced retaliation from GEO Group guards and ICE for his participation in hunger strikes. Abrego says he was accused of leading a strike and was sent to solitary confinement before being transferred to Arizona and then to Oregon.
“It was kind of retaliation because they don’t want you to have any attention from the public,” said Abrego. “They can choose you as an organizer or an instigator. And, that’s a hot thing. It was like a punishment.”
In 2017 alone there were nine hunger strikes between April and November, according to La Resistancia.
Fonseca told Perilous that he was placed into solitary confinement when he had just begun hunger striking, spending 65 days in a cell alone.
Concerns of Medical Neglect Deepen with Spread of COVID-19
Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented response from prisoners resulting in nationwide protests, strikes, escapes, property destruction, and uprisings. Perilous Chronicle’s report on the First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19 details the actions from prisoners and detainees resisting the carceral system in the face of a global health crisis.
Outside the prison walls, advocates urgently organized car protests and call-in campaigns demanding an immediate reduction in prison and detention populations. At the NWDC, detainees continued to engage in hunger strikes and a work stoppage while La Resistencia continued to advocate in support under the banner of #FreeThemAll.
In response to reports of the virus rapidly spreading within prisons and detention centers throughout the beginning of 2020, legal advocates around the U.S. began appealing to courts to issue injunctions. They attempted to pressure ICE to more quickly address the crisis developing inside its facilities.
In March 2020 the Washington ACLU, in conjunction with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), filed a lawsuit against ICE to release 9 immigrants at high-risk for contracting severe cases of COVID-19 from the NWDC. A few days later, a judge denied their requested temporary restraining order, which would have required the facility to temporarily release the 9 individuals.
Just a month later a federal judge in California issued a decision requiring ICE to survey all detainees in facilities nationwide and release those who are at increased risk of a severe case of the virus. Up until this ruling, ICE had only made broad recommendations that facilities lower their population sizes.
Although the authority to release individuals belongs to ICE, the decision to do so has been left up to the determination of privately contracted groups, like GEO Group. The federal judge’s decision reads that facilities are not likely to take “independent or decisive action” in reducing their population given the economic benefit of meeting full capacity quotas.
In April 2020, in a statement to the Seattle Times, Stephen Langford, a facility administrator employed by GEO at the NWDC, said that reducing numbers at the facility would be unnecessary. He asserted that for months prior to the start of the pandemic, the facility was operating at around half of its 1535 bed capacity, meaning there was already adequate room for social distancing inside the facility.
Matt Adams, an attorney with NWIRP, speculates in the same Seattle Times article that this drop in population was likely due to the Trump administration’s remain in Mexico policy, also known as Migrant Protection Protocols. Under the controversial policy, a large percentage of the immigrants who would typically be held in the facility were instead transported back to Mexico after reaching the U.S. southern border.
In a report published in 2020 by Human Rights First entitled A Year of Horrors, the human rights advocacy group provides evidence that the policy led to “kidnappings, torture, sexual assaults, legal representation barriers, and the denial and abandonment of genuine refugee protection requests.” The Biden administration ended the MPP upon entering office, but the situation at the US/Mexico border continues to be fraught with violence and often confusing policy changes leaving many still stuck on the other side of the border awaiting entry.
Angelina Godoy of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times that despite GEO’s reports of adequate space for distancing and safety implementations, detainees were still being held in proximities deemed unsafe by CDC standards throughout the pandemic. According to Godoy, it was not until mid-October that GEO made masks mandatory for its employees inside the NWDC.
One detainee, Belkis Marisela Nolasco, told Perilous in an interview that while cleaning solitary confinement cells, she was only provided with minimal protection from the virus, gloves and a mask, while GEO employees were provided additional protection like cleaning suits. Villalpando from La Resistencia adds that despite CDC recommendations for adequate ventilation, the facility has very limited ventilation infrastructure, if any. This has raised serious concerns for advocates, as people infected with COVID-19 may experience heightened respiratory difficulty when exposed to noxious disinfectants.
In a state congressional hearing in May 2020, ICE stated they had released 16 detainees from the NWDC but did not plan to release anymore, despite identifying 128 people as potentially high-risk. Legislators were also told only 7 detainees had been tested for COVID-19. Though ICE had complied with court orders demanding releases, representatives remained concerned if social distancing was “even possible” given their 45% occupancy at that time.
In December 2020, the ACLU and the NWIRP filed another lawsuit on behalf of detainees to release “medically vulnerable” people amid rising cases. The court case is still ongoing.
“Once COVID-19 begins circulating within an immigrant detention facility, it spreads rapidly,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at ACLU’s National Prison Project in a press release about the lawsuit. “One study this year found that the immigration detention facilities had a COVID-19 rate that was more than 13 times the rate of the U.S. population.”
When contacted for this article, Seattle’s assigned ICE Public Affairs Officer said they were not able to comment on the current number of detainees and occupancy of the facility. The officer added that ICE does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation.
At the beginning of the pandemic, ICE had committed to reducing populations nationwide of detained immigrants to reach an operating capacity of less than 70% normal capacity. Yet, it wasn’t until November that medically vulnerable individuals began to be released from NWDC, according to Villalpando. Alarmed by this inaction, La Resistencia collaborated with the Tacoma Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and on August 4, 2020 the Tacoma City Council passed a resolution advocating for the expansion of health interventions at the NWDC.
The resolution called for a “systematic release of all detainees under parole and bond” and an “end to transfers in and out of the facility.” Additionally, it signaled the city’s support for the detained population, called for the suspension of the facilities operations during COVID-19, and advocated for an exploration of the city’s authority to engage in health related interventions in the privately-operated facility.
The resolution does not address persistent problems detainees face with accessing bond and medically vulnerable people still imprisoned at the facility today. City resolutions are also not laws and don’t hold any legal power.
Legal experts working to address the conditions at the NWDC assert that health and safety conditions have always been poor–even when facility populations have been low.
Not Holding Their Breath: Detainees and Advocates Meet Medical Needs Directly
In 2018, Saja Tunkura was detained and despite informing guards of a scheduled surgery for a tumor in his neck, was provided minimal pain treatment and delayed surgery. According to the Kirkland Reporter, medical records show that ICE Health Service Corps, who manage medical operations at ICE detention centers, ignored Tunkura’s pain and medical condition.
Citing a consistent pattern of medical neglect, La Resistencia and detainees at NWDC are not waiting for ICE and GEO Group to follow a District Court’s mandate to medically evaluate people for their release during the pandemic. At the request of detainees, La Resistencia has been sending individual’s medical records to a team of doctors who will review them and make a clinical diagnosis and recommendations for their release according to the CDC’s guidelines.
Villalpando says when countless immigrants call La Resistencia’s hotline, they describe what she asserts is a “well-orchestrated” process for denying immigrant detainees quality medical care.
“They are asked to be ready for an appointment at 5 a.m., and because of COVID, they are putting people in rooms to wait. Those rooms are really small and really tiny and very cold,” said Villalpando. “Most people are kept there for hours at a time while waiting to see a doctor. So people would be like ‘you know what, I’d rather go back to my pod.’ And then they were like ‘okay, sign here refusing medical service.'”
Discouraged from seeking medical care, detainees are told they are refusing medical services–which is documented in their files and could be used by ICE to discredit immigrants’ grievances or seeking legal remedy, according to Villalpando.
According to Voices from Detention, these violations of international and domestic law have been a common occurrence at the NWDC since before 2008. Interviews with dozens of immigrants reveal guards forcing detainees to sign legally binding documents under pressure, including verbal threats and physical intimidation. The report adds that these documents, which can be life changing and even include consent to deportation, are often not translated nor explained.
According to a December 2020 report entitled Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center by the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington, ICE has coordinated multiple transfers of detainees on hunger strike from other facilities to the NWDC, claiming that the facility has “specialized knowledge of hunger strike management.”
“Ultimately, what I want, is.. my freedom”
Victor Fonseca signed a voluntary departure form prior to being detained more than 700 days ago. Yet ICE has continued to hold him in custody. Since first being detained, he has participated in multiple strikes and worked with La Resistencia to bring attention to the conditions within the NWDC. Fonseca has recently surpassed 170 days of his current hunger strike and claims he isn’t stopping any time soon despite being heavily medicated due to several chronic conditions like depression and rheumatoid arthritis. To be able to continue striking without being held in solitary confinement, he refuses two meals a day and eats one meal a day to sustain himself.
Before being detained by ICE, Fonseca worked for more than 20 years for the same grocery store chain. Fonseca has family in Utah, including a mother, 3 half brothers, 3 children, and two grandchildren. He says that detention has caused him to lose everything he had worked for: his home, career, and family.
Fonseca has also lamented the death of a child while in detention. “Last year, I lost a son. My son was 34-years-old, his name was Jefferson, and he passed away Feb. 9th 2020,” Fonseca told Perilous. He requested to be furloughed to attend the funeral. ICE denied his request.
Fonseca just began an appeal process for his case, hoping to be able to remain in the country that has become his home. He was told by his lawyer to expect the process to take anywhere from 18 months to 4 years to be completed. Fonseca told Perilous that he has been encouraged by the passage of House Bill 1090 into law. He plans to continue his strike and his ongoing collaboration with La Resistance and other community organizations.
“I am still alive. I am really grateful. Ultimately, what I want, is…my freedom,” said Fonseca. “I’m just trying to get out.”
He says he strikes not only for himself but for all the other immigrants who are being denied their freedom. “It’s not just for me, I do it for others,” he said.
In the cell next to him another immigrant, who is from India, has been held for over five years. Solidarity between detainees in the face of retaliation is a bedrock of internal organizing according to Villalpando. With the numbers of immigrants detained dropping, strong organizing and leadership becomes more challenging on the inside, she said.
Villalpando added that she has been told that stress levels have risen tremendously since the early weeks of the pandemic and that this has caused trusting relationships between detainees to be difficult. People are afraid and desperate; they want to get out.
“It’s kind of hard to organize now because you don’t have people in there that are there long term,” says Abrego, “And the people that have been there long term, they don’t want to mess up their cases or anything.”
Despite grappling with these complications, there appear to be many inside the facility who are determined to resist their conditions. One of the only two women left in ICE custody at the NWDC, Gloria Iniquez, was put in solitary confinement in response to beginning a hunger strike in February. Both Fonseca and Iniquez are still refusing meals as of late May. In a letter made public by La Resistencia, Iniquez describes what she calls a disregard for the lives of detainees that GEO Group has displayed throughout the pandemic. Exposed to toxic cleaning supplies without proper ventilation, Iniquez says she has suffered from chronic headaches, coughing, and burning eyes.
“I work in the clinic, and there are people in solitary with coronavirus, and they come to our unit to say that no one has been infected?” Gloria said. “Why can’t they tell the truth?”
In a video posted to La Resistencia’s Twitter account, a detainee named Jose describes how the impacts of a reduced population hasn’t cleared the center of challenges. He claims that because of the small numbers, the facility is cutting food. He adds that there wasn’t enough food for the detainees for three days. Jose also describes how tension between guards and prisoners is growing as the number of detained immigrants fell below 200, requiring GEO guards to take on work that was previously done by detainees for $1 a day or a small portion of food.
“They are working angry, because before they are getting paid to stand still,” said Jose. “They [guards] are having to do the work now: like laundry, cleaning, so the stress that they are working under, they are putting onto us.”
In response to the recent signage of House Bill 1090, Jose poses a question that many people will likely be asking in years to come: “If we are on the pathway to denying it from being open, why are they keeping it open?”
Legal Challenges Ahead
The slated closure of the NWDC for 2025 is a distinct victory for advocates who are critical of private, for-profit prisons. But even as detainees begin counting down the days until the facility’s closure, legal challenges are ongoing.
GEO recently announced in a legal challenge to House Bill 1090 in April that people detained at the facility at the time of its closure will be transferred to different facilities out of state.
GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private prison operators, calls House Bill 1090 an “assault on the supremacy of federal law.” Their legal challenge calls the bill an “attack” on their constitutional rights by interfering with federal government regulatory powers to privately contract detention centers and prisons.
A similar law banning private detention facilities in California was temporarily upheld by a District Court following an appeal from GEO Group and the federal government under the Trump Administration. The appeals process has been continued by the Biden administration.
The administration claims in a brief filed by the government that the case is “not about the wisdom of the federal government’s decisions, but about preserving its discretion to make decisions.”
The administration has yet to join the appeal of the Washington ban, but the outcome of the appeals process in California will have implications in Washington. In the appeals, GEO Group and the federal government assert that the state legislatures are interfering with federal authority over immigration enforcement and regulation.
When asked how the House Bill 1090’s signage has affected La Resistencia’s strategy, Villalpando says that their practice is to employ new tactics as they see fit, aiming to be flexible with their strategy, while attempting to predict what will come next. She says the challenge for most people is that they’re just not used to winning.
“Instead of thinking, how are we going to close it?” said Villalpando, “Our fight is going to become, how do we get everyone out?”
Alexa Villatoro is a writer from Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @aalexavillatoro
Ridley Seawood is a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective and is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow them on Twitter: @ridleyseawood
Header image: Protestors chain themselves together to shut down the NWDC in 2014. (Photo Credit: KUOW Photo/Liz Jones).