For years, the vast majority of the 1,575 available detainee beds at the Northwest Detention Center were filled each night. From October 2013 through September 2014 the average number of people held at the facility while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worked to deport them ranged from 1,300 to almost 1,500.
But according to ICE data obtained by the Globalist, lately those head counts have skewed far lower. On February 23 there were only 808 detainees at morning headcount, and a separate source reported that this past Monday there were 894.
The drop appears to have begun in October, with an average of 1104 detainees. By January the average was just 818, barely half of capacity at the Tacoma detention center.
To what do we owe this drastic drop in detainees?
“The fluctuation of the detention population is largely due to factors outside the control of ICE, including the recent slowdown in illegal border crossers and asylum seekers following the huge influx last year,” said ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew Muñoz. ICE ramped up available detention space in the border states during the flood of unaccompanied minors and other border crossers, and there is now more total detention space available nationwide than there was before.
“It may also be attributed to the decline in criminal alien arrests, since authorities in Oregon and Washington stopped honoring detainers,” explained Muñoz. “As a result, officers must now expend more time and resources locating and arresting these individuals at-large in the community following their release from local jails or prisons.”
Regardless of the cause, the falling number of detainees raises questions about the upcoming contract renewal for the facility. We expected to hear confirmation by yesterday, April 1st, that private prison corporation the GEO Group would get another decade worth of taxpayer funding to run the facility.
Then came this email from Muñoz:
“Contract negotiations remain on going and will not be concluded before our original anticipated contract start date of April 1. The current contract with the Geo Group has been extended through April 23.”
This will be the second of the two possible emergency extensions included in the last contract. So there will have to be a contract on or before April 23 — there’s no more emergency options on the table. So what’s the deal?
“My guess is that GEO is shaking them down on specific points of the contract,” said Tim Smith of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, who has kept tabs on the facility since it first opened in 2004.
ICE doesn’t appear to have any other bidders on the contract, so they’re really kind of at the mercy of GEO Group during negotiations. The other private prison behemoth that might be capable of operating a facility of this scale, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), hasn’t shown any interest. Washington is GEO Group country.
So what sorts of things are on the negotiation table? GEO is likely trying to get a few additional cents here and there for routine things (29 cents instead of 27 cents per mile on prisoner transports, for example). Two cents sounds petty, but lots of prisoners will need to go a lot of miles over the next decade. GEO will have a nice stack of pennies by April 2025. Plus, with head counts at the facility plummeting in recent months, they’re probably looking to get those additional pennies wherever they can. After all they’re a publicly traded company with shareholders to keep happy.
Under the current contract, GEO is guaranteed a minimum of 750 full beds at the NWDC each night — beyond that they’re paid based on how many beds are filled. That guarantee will likely rise to 800 in the next contract. But with the number of detainees trending downward, if I were GEO Group negotiators, I’d be angling for an even higher guarantee right about now.
I asked Muñoz if that’s on the table.
“I’m not able to discuss the scope of the negotiations other than to say they are ongoing at this time,” he wrote. So we’re left to speculate.
The 750 guaranteed beds is just a paltry slice of the 34,000 immigrants required to be detained each night across the nation, according to federal appropriations quotas. Rep Adam Smith described the problem at length in this awesome Op-Ed that appeared in The Seattle Times Tuesday. (It is worth noting that Smith was among those who gave the green light to build the facility in its dismal location on the Tacoma tide flats in the first place. Still, it’s nice to see he’s changed his mind.)
Once the new contract is finalized, the situation is unlikely to change for ten long years. The best anyone could hope for is that the number of detainees continues to fall. But even if it does dip lower long term, that will mean thousands of taxpayer dollars each night paying a private prison corporation to keep empty beds.
If you think that sounds like a bad plan, activist Tim Smith has a suggestion for you: bug Congressman Smith. He already cares about this issue, and since the facility is in his district, he has the power to request a hearing with the Department of Homeland Security over the pending contract. That certainly wouldn’t mean an immediate shutdown of the facility, but could stall the contract renewal process and improve conditions for detainees.