Another decade of detention center woes in Tacoma?

Detainees inside the women's wing of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Detainees inside the women’s wing of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

As Day of the Dead and Halloween celebrations raged, detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma launched their third hunger strike this year.

“We began another volunteer peaceful hunger strike starting October 31st,” explained detainee Cipriano Rios Saturday. “Utilizing radio, visits from relatives and other ways, more detainees have joined the strike. Just today 35 more people joined, making a total of close to 200 detainees in hunger strike.”

I’m sure at this point I’m not the only one wondering why detainees at the Northwest Detention Center keep going on hunger strike. I mean, if the first strike this year didn’t lead to better conditions, and the second strike didn’t lead to better conditions… what’s different now?

It may be that there’s a renewed sense of urgency surrounding the detention center’s future. If there is ever a time to oppose the existence of or conditions at the Northwest Detention Center, that time is now.

The elusive contract for the facility’s continued operation still hasn’t posted to, but October 27 a pre-solicitation notice trickled out of the General Service Administration contracting office in California. The actual contract should post to for solicitation on November 10.

The current contract, held the private for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, was supposed to expire on October 23 but was extended through February of next year when ICE failed to get the call for bids posted in time.

“Our contracting staff has been sapped by the response to unaccompanied minors,” explained ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz, referencing the flood of undocumented Central American children arriving at the border this summer.

“The facility shall be Contractor-Owned, Contractor-Operated, available for occupancy not later than April 1, 2015,” explains Contract Specialist Jun Surla in the pre solicitation notice that was finally posed in late October.

From a prison industry perspective the contract sounds peachy: a decade of guaranteed payments of well over $100 a day per bed for 1,575 beds to hold those suspected of immigration violations or awaiting deportation.

From a human rights perspective, it’s extremely worrisome that this is happening at a time when there seem to be so many problems with conditions at the facility.

Timeline: Northwest Detention Center

(Timeline by Lael Henterly for The Seattle Globalist)

Odds are that the GEO group, which has been running the facility since 2005, will be the only company bidding on the contract. After all, who else is going to be able to provide a 1575 bed facility within 30 miles of Sea-Tac Airport by next April.

If GEO’s contract renewal goes off without a hitch, as it seems it will, it raises the frustrating question of how bad conditions at the Northwest Detention Center have to get for the gravy train to be derailed.

The hunger strikes back in March caught the attention of U.S. Congressman Adam Smith, who introduced legislation that would have improved oversight at immigration detention facilities around the nation. But the bill didn’t go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Congress, and representatives of both ICE and GEO confirmed for an article that I wrote last summer that their relationship was strong. Despite all the bad press, as far as ICE is concerned, GEO is doing a bang-up job of fulfilling the requirements of their contract.

I’ve been covering the NWDC since March, but it feels like lot longer. I don’t know how the activists do it.

At events and protest actions, it’s pretty much always the same crowd of people — people with an amazing capacity for hope, many of them undocumented immigrants themselves, standing bravely in the blazing sun or frigid rain as near to their loved ones as they can get for the time being. This weekend supporters of detainees camped out the NWDC in tents to celebrate Día de los Muertos and as many as 90 people marched outside the facility.

Why hunger strikes? I mean, I get it, it’s a peaceful form of protest, a protected right a tradition among disgruntled captives.

But I also talk to ICE officials enough to know that it’s no big thing to them. Until a detainee refuses food for long enough that they are in medical distress ICE doesn’t even consider them to be participating in a hunger strike.

“Over the weekend between 10 and 35 meals were returned uneaten at each scheduled meal,” Munoz explained in an email. “Detainees still had access to their commissary purchases. No one was declared on hunger strike, nor placed under medical observation. Since Monday, detainees have resumed eating meals provided by the center.”

So why to detainees keep trying?

“They don’t have much else,” said Northwest Detention Center Resistance activist Jolinda Stephens. “They have had everything taken away from the, all they have is their bodies so they use what they have.”

Stephens explained that though GEO Group claims the detainees are served 3,000 calories worth of food a day. Activists on the outside estimate it is closer to 1,200 calories.

I asked if detainees, who cook, clean, paint and perform many of the essential functions of the prison for $1 per day, have ever tried refusing to work instead of refusing food.

“They are able to make a lot of money for GEO Group,” said Stephens, who believes organizing a work strike would pose additional complications, especially for GEO Group who would suddenly need to hire and pay employees to clean and cook.

Protesters gather outside the Northwest Detention Center on Dia de los Muertos. (Video by Colette Cosner)

“The intention is to get attention,” said Jose Moreno, a former detainee and immigrant rights activist who participated in a similar strike in March. “ICE is doing nothing about the conditions, they haven’t solved any demands.”

Both Stephens and Moreno countered Munoz’s statement that the strike has ended. It is difficult for those on the outside to know how many participants are on hunger strike, but Moreno estimated about 100 detainees are still participating.

As a former insider, Moreno was aware of some detainees who refused to work in the past.

“They stopped working, some of them, but there is still many working,” said Moreno. “Detainees basically run the facility, so if they stop working, it could get attention from ICE, one demand is that ICE meet with us outside to get those demands fixed. We’re pushing Congress to get ICE to meet with us.”

In the meantime, Munoz said the best way for the public to inform ICE of their opinions about the detention center contract renewal is through a form on their website, which is a catch-all for any complaint or other message about ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations.

Concerned citizens might be better off saving their keystrokes for typing letters to their congressman, or representatives to the City of Tacoma, Pierce County and Washington state. So far, Rep. Smith has been most active on the issue, but getting representatives on the other side of the aisle on board would be especially meaningful.

Public meetings weren’t held prior to the facility being built. They haven’t been held as it has expanded and gobbled up emergency service personnel time and social service dollars. And hopes for comprehensive immigration reform that would overhaul the system from the top down are withering in D.C.

The sad truth is, sidewalk demonstrations and detainee hunger strikes might still be the best bet.


  1. How about no one cares because these people are criminals and think that because they’re minorities, that gives them the right to break US law and disregard our borders. Whatever happened to people being held accountable for their actions? As austere as things may be, these people are safe and are having their basic NEEDS (not WANTS) met. They’re alive and have a roof over their heads. They get three hots a day. If you think things are really bad, go to county or the BOP.

  2. I would hope that you care enough about “these people” that you would become a peer listener to really get to know “your enemy”! By “walking in the shoes “of these human beings, perhaps you will find something of yourself, a reality which mimics your human needs/wants. Before you become more embittered about accountability for actions, why not step forward & become accountable to your attitude by seeking the facts from “the criminals” themselves?! It is not a crime to be a human being, ask for help, and seek asylum (many of these people have been held for more than 2 years without even a trial)! Let’s listen to what President Obama has to say about the rights of individuals who will be granted amnesty in the coming days….you may be surprised!

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