On Tuesday a group of sign-wielding protesters marched along the sidewalk outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a privately-run Immigrations and Customs Enforcement lockup facility.
The dead end street adjacent to the GEO Group-owned and operated detention facility attracts a lot of protesters, and signs like “GEO unfair treatment” are pretty standard. What was unusual about Tuesday’s protest was the people holding the signs: GEO Group employees who work at the facility.
Victoria Mena, Policy Director and Development Strategist at Colectiva Legal del Pueblo — a group that provides legal services and advocates on behalf of migrants — stopped by NWDC Tuesday afternoon after hearing from an attorney colleague that GEO Group employees were picketing.
Mena says she arrived to find between 25 and 30 guards on the street outside the detention center. She approached two of the off-duty GEO Group employees who were handing out coffee and donuts and asked them if there was a labor strike.
Mena said the corrections workers described the action as an “informational strike” and said that they were frustrated by low wages, inadequate training, mandatory overtime and a lack of sick days.
The NWDC guards unionized in January, five years into a pay-freeze, and have received push-back from the company in recent months, Mena said.
The ICE spokeswoman, Rose M. Richeson, confirmed that ICE staff at the Northwest Detention Center, “noticed a gathering of what appeared to be GEO employees Tuesday.” Richeson referred me to GEO Group for comment on the details of the event; in typical fashion, GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment.
“Here is this huge, greedy corporation that is exploiting its workers as well as the people in detention.”
I visited the strike Wednesday but didn’t find any disgruntled workers, just six vehicles with signs condemning the GEO Group displayed on their windshields.
The aggrieved workers at NWDC aren’t alone; numbers compiled by the research and policy group In the Public Interest (ITPI) in 2014 demonstrated that the 800,000 people employed in U.S. lockup facilities are at heightened risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Corrections officers at private prisons typically work under worse conditions than their peers at government-run facilities because the for-profit prisons are short staffed.
Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this year put the median 2015 salary for private-prison correctional officers at $32,290, with a quarter of correctional officers making less than $26,091.
The guards aren’t the first to advocate for better working conditions at NWDC. In March 2014 detainees at the facility initiated a work stoppage and hunger strike in response to inadequate compensation and food.
“Here is this huge, greedy corporation that is exploiting its workers as well as the people in detention,” said Mena.