The multibillion-dollar company that runs the immigrant detention center in Tacoma confirmed deploying “chemical agents” Wednesday as conflict over allegedly inadequate food and unsanitary conditions escalate.
GEO Group guards at the Northwest ICE Processing Center took the measure after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorized “non-lethal use of force” in response to a confrontation during a housing unit inspection that discovered contraband razor blades, an ICE spokesperson said.
The unit’s detainees barricaded their door before the chemical agents were used, according to GEO and a witness, and multiple reports say a hunger strike is taking place at the facility, though that’s contested by GEO.
Maru Mora Villalpando, of the group La Resistencia, which closely follows conditions at the detention center, said Wednesday’s confrontation marked the first time she’s heard of chemical agents being used at the facility, though there have been reports of tear gas used at other immigrant detention centers.
She also said one detainee tried to kill himself after the incident — a claim GEO and ICE deny. A detainee at the facility died of suicide in 2018.
The confrontation taps into a battle between state officials who want to ban privately run detention operations and the corporate and government entities that seek to keep them running. It also highlights the opaque way the Tacoma facility runs, with confusing messages about who’s ultimately responsible for an institution operated by a private company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“These latest reports are alarming,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. “Unfortunately, they are consistent with the concerns my office has long had regarding the unlawful and unsafe conditions at the Northwest ICE Processing Center.”
GEO fired back in a statement, strongly refuting “baseless allegations” the Florida-based company claimed “are part of a long-standing radical campaign to attack ICE contractors, abolish ICE, and end federal immigration detention by proxy” in Washington.
David Yost, the ICE spokesperson, wrote in an email that the agency “is committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments.” He also included a photo of a razor blade attached to a comb that was confiscated during Wednesday’s inspection.
In a previous phone call, Yost indicated ICE had limited control over what happens in the facility that bears its name. “I don’t have direct oversight over GEO,” he said, referring questions to that company.
Yet, Christopher Ferreira, a GEO corporate relations manager, said by phone the company would only comment by email because all statements must be approved by ICE. The government agency sends immigrants to the facility that it charges with being in the country unlawfully.
According to the statement Ferreira later sent, the Wednesday incident involved “a small group of high-security detainees” who were being disruptive, barricading themselves inside their housing unit and blocking security cameras.
“Staff were able to diffuse the initial disruption, with more than half of the detainees complying,” Ferreira said. “However, the remaining detainees continued to be unresponsive to staff orders and, as a matter of protocol, this resulted in the use of chemical agents.”
The statement added: “We take the use of chemical agents with the utmost seriousness and our staff follow strict federal standards as it relates to their use.”
Christian Dueñas, who’s being held in a unit directly across from the one where the confrontation occurred, said he could see and hear much of what happened. The confrontation began, he said, when guards inspected the unit, which Dueñas estimates holds roughly 30 people. The guards confiscated empty soda bottles detainees were using as water bottles, a use guards said was prohibited, said Dueñas, who didn’t mention razor blades.
When detainees got upset, the guards told them to go to their beds. The detainees refused, according to Dueñas, saying: “You can’t treat us like it’s a prison.” Detainees are subject to civil, not criminal, deportation proceedings.
The situation escalated from there. Guards began removing items from the unit: an Xbox video game console, tablets, even chairs, Dueñas said. When most of the guards left, detainees told the lone remaining officer to leave. “She left because she [saw] it was escalating out off control.” Detainees then barricaded the door, he said.
Dueñas said guards dressed in helmets and body armor arrived and unsuccessfully tried to talk with the detainees, then threw what he described as three grenades — one that gave off smoke and two that emitted something like tear gas. (GEO did not respond to a question about what kind of chemical agents were used.)
“You could smell it from across the hallway,” Dueñas said. Guards then led detainees, “coughing and choking,” out of the unit in handcuffs.
Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney in the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office, said one of the organization’s lawyers talked to a client from the affected unit Thursday. That client echoed Dueñas’ account in several ways, including by describing detainees as upset, officers responding by taking items out of the unit, and detainees shutting the door and getting hit with “gas bombs.”
Warden-Hertz said the use of gas in a confined space is “incredibly troubling.”
The account relayed by Warden-Hertz did not mention an inspection or confiscated soda bottles setting off the confrontation. Rather, the client said detainees in the unit were on a hunger strike and demanding to talk to ICE.
Dueñas said he and other detainees in his unit are also on a hunger strike, in protest of miserable conditions that include food that is undercooked, inadequately portioned and erratically delivered. He said one day this week, guards served dinner at 8:30 p.m., seven hours after lunch.
Mora Villalpando, of La Resistencia, said at least 100 detainees are on a hunger strike as of Friday. The organization and detainees have reported wave after wave of hunger strikes for years, often refuted by GEO and ICE.
While detainees have long complained about conditions, the situation seems to have worsened of late. In January, Ferguson sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general calling for an investigation into “unsanitary living conditions” and how GEO actions in Tacoma have “put detainee health, safety, and welfare at risk.”
Ferguson accused GEO of retaliating over a lawsuit he brought against the company in 2017, saying its $1-a-day voluntary work program violated minimum wage law. Ferguson won the case in 2021, and it’s now under appeal.
In the meantime, GEO suspended the program instead of paying detainee workers more. And according to Ferguson, the company has failed to make up for the lost labor, resulting in filthy surroundings, poor food quality and inadequate laundry services. Even though GEO eventually hired a cleaning company, detainees report cleaners come as little as once a week and work “quickly and superficially,” the attorney general wrote.
GEO denies the allegations, saying: “We have taken all necessary action to ensure that facility sanitation levels and food service operations and quality are maintained at the facility in accordance with all applicable federal sanitation and food service standards.”
Washington lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 banning most privately run detention centers. GEO sued, and the litigation is ongoing. The 1,575-bed facility, whose population plummeted to about 200 as ICE scaled back operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, currently holds about 600 detainees, according to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.