ICE contract to house immigrant detainees opening this summer

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma has been used to imprison immigrants slated for deportation since April of 2004. (Image via Google Maps)
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma has been used to imprison immigrants slated for deportation since April of 2004. (Image via Google Maps)

Looking for a business opportunity?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is looking for someone to provide secure accommodations for thousands of immigrants slated for deportation from the Northwest each year.

So how do you get involved in the exciting world of private prisons?

A good start would be to build and staff your own prison facility before the call for bids opens this summer.

You’ll need to work fast if you’re going to beat out The GEO Group, the Florida-based corrections giant that currently holds the contract for housing detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

 “The contract expires October 23,” said ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew S. Munoz. “ICE anticipates posting the new contract solicitation on by the end of July 2014.”

When it is posted, it will probably look something like this want ad for a similar contract in south Florida, which reads: Seeking detention management services to include an existing contractor owned detention facility, all personnel, management, equipment, supplies and services necessary to operate and manage the facility.

Building your own prison will be expensive, but there’s plenty of profit to be made. Spending on immigration detention operations is escalating each year. For fiscal year 2014, the Department of Homeland Security requested just under $1.9 billion for immigration detention operations. That works out to $5,041,095 per day or about $148.26 per detainee (assuming the minimum quota of 34,000 detainees nationwide). Most of that ends up in the hands of the private contractors who provide those facilities.

Those same detainees could be monitored using secure detention alternatives such as electronic anklets and other forms of home detention at a cost between one and $17 a day.

Timeline: Northwest Detention Center

(Timeline by Lael Henterly for The Seattle Globalist)

Currently, the NWDC has beds for 1,575 detainees and boasts the fourth highest average daily population in the nation. It is the dedicated facility for detainees picked up in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington and also accepts detainees from other locations as space allows. Completed in April 2004, the facility initially had room for 500 detainees. In 2006 they made room for an additional 450 and in 2010 the facility expanded to its current capacity.

So is there really any chance that another party could beat out GEO for the contract?

“Any entity is at liberty to respond with a proposal and the submissions received will be thoroughly reviewed by ICE to determine the appropriate course of action,” Virginia Kice, ICE’s Western Regional Communications Director, assured me.

The GEO Group has been raked over the coals in local and national media lately during the recent hunger strike and activism by groups protesting conditions at the NWDC.

Would those political challenges make a competing private prison company or entrepreneur bidding on the contract look that much more desirable to ICE?

Probably not, says retired Army Intelligence Officer and Bill of Rights Defense Committee – Tacoma (BORDC) Chairperson Tim Smith, who has been following the NWDC since before it opened, amassing a staggering body of knowledge and information related to the detention center.

“In all these contracts there are contingencies for the government to assume control of the facility if GEO failed,” Tim Smith explained. “ICE can hold them pecuniarily liable and fine them for these conditions. I don’t think that’s ever been done.”

GEO Group employees in riot gear posted across from the Northwest Detention Center, during a demonstration in 2009. (Photo courtesy Tim Smith)
GEO Group employees in riot gear posted across from the Northwest Detention Center, during a demonstration in 2009. (Photo courtesy Tim Smith)

Munoz verified that GEO has never been cited for a violation or fined by ICE, directing me to this report from a 2012 inspection – which GEO passed with flying colors.

But while ICE may be pleased with GEO Group’s operation of NWDC, lawmakers and the public are increasingly critical.

After visiting the facility earlier this year, U.S. Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, legislation that would improve conditions at immigration detention facilities around the nation. If passed the bill would also implement an unplanned inspection system for these facilities and encourage the use of secure detention alternatives such as house arrest.

Rep. Smith admits that getting the bill passed will be difficult.

“It will be a challenge with the current House Republican leadership,” Rep. Smith said, “but I hope to continue to pick up co-sponsors to pressure leadership on the issue.”

Congressman Smith said he shared the legislation with ICE, but they had yet to provide feedback.

“I think that we need to look for ways to move away from the private prison industry,” Smith wrote in an email. “They are running a business so getting cheaper food and services is going to save them money. That is wrong. The challenge is that the private companies own the facilities so that presents some issues, but my staff and I are looking for potential ways that we can work around that.”

Conditions at immigration detention facilities could likely be improved if ICE were to simply demand more from the private companies they contract to run them. But according to both ICE and GEO, they’re already doing a great job.

“GEO’s immigration facilities, including the NWDC provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” Pablo E. Paez, GEO Group’s Vice President of Corporate Relations explained in an email. “Our facilities adhere to strict contractual requirements and standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO’s facilities.”

Okay, so in the end it might not be realistic for anyone else to even think about bidding on this contract. Even if a competitor were to build and staff a suitable facility to bid on the contract, they would be competing with GEO Group and their well-established relationship with ICE.

“Keep their business booming” is the congressional immigration detention quota known as the “bed mandate”. Won by conservative lawmakers in 2006, the bed mandate requires that ICE hold an average daily head count of 34,000 detainees nationwide.

Last year more than eight thousand of those beds were at facilities owned or operated by GEO.

“GEO is best positioned to win the renewal. However, strong action by individuals, groups, the City of Tacoma or the State of Washington could delay [it].” Tim Smith told me via email. “I don’t think many people have even thought about the renewal so few are working to oppose it directly.”


  1. I really appreciate the detail and breadth of coverage the Seattle Globalist gives to the direct and indirect impacts of our national detention psychosis and vast prison industrial complex our disease feeds. Thank-you for covering a topic and facility so emblematic of that national disorder. Please continue to follow this in such a complete and thorough manner as demonstrated by this journalist. Not one more detention, not one more deportation.

    1. Thanks Tim, for your kind words and for sharing your knowledge about the issues surrounding the detention center!

    2. Are you kidding me? Not one more detention, etc.? What about us who have been here all our lives and are being ‘crowded out’ by these foreign ‘restless people’ who want to come live the American Dream? I feel that if they can’t live a relatively happy life where they came from, the problem is NOT the country in which they were born into and currently reside, as much as it’s THEM wanting MORE and MORE and MORE. This has to STOP! Send them back! We deserve a better life with them GONE! Elbow room, please!

  2. This is a wonderful article, but there is one important nuance that it glosses over: the bed mandate isn’t a requirement that DHS actually detain 34,000. As I explained in greater detail on my blog,, the law’s language requires DHS to pay for 34,000 beds, but doesn’t say anything about filling them (see here: From a legal standpoint, there is nothing preventing ICE from leaving beds unused. Indeed, it does that to a small extent already since in most years, on average, the agency detains fewer than of 34,000 per night. This wouldn’t be the first time the federal government paid for something it didn’t need or use.

  3. Cesar, that’s my understanding, too… guaranteed payment for a certain amount of bed space regardless if it’s filled or not. Sweet deal for the facility.

    Good article, though, and thank you for keeping this issue under review. A few other notable items for the timeline could show the history of how that particular piece of property had become a Superfund waste site (and is in the path of a lahar flow), yet Rep. Adam Smith (the same who is now giving lip service to issues he ignored until they became headline news) quietly helped procure that toxic location for the detention center, himself.

    1. @HeidiGS I agree, so much, about Rep (D) Adam Smith. Now that he is in the newly Gerrymandered, BVue-centric, and less-“toxic” (ha ha) district, his current D.C. behavior is amazing. His legislation went nowhere but looked good. I wish he would direct efforts with his friends at DHS and ICE to oversee the contract process. I find it stunning that GEO can even say that the NWDC is “safe”, on a flood plain, in a lahar zone, on a fault, built barely to survive the liquifaction from a 7.0 quake or the shearing off of a cliff in the South Puget Sound and the resulting moderate 20 ft mini-tsunami. Our state reputation is as stake by the supporting of the WEDFA bonds for 2004 and the 2009 expansion of this place. No state would build a prison at this location. No nation would build a prison in such a place. No smart nation would build a prison. This place should be closed.

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