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News / Northwest

A waste of public money? ICE paid firm $40M for unused beds at Tacoma detention center

By Shea Johnson, The News Tribune
Published: June 5, 2023, 6:00am

TACOMA — Federal inspectors who made an unannounced visit last year to an immigration detention center in Tacoma suggested that Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be wasting taxpayer dollars, according to a recent report of their findings that also included shortcomings at the facility detrimental to detainees.

ICE paid more than $40 million to the detention center’s for-profit operator, The GEO Group, for unused bed space during fiscal year 2022, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General highlighted in a May 22 report to ICE acting director Tae D. Johnson. The report followed a two-day site visit to the Northwest ICE Processing Center by an OIG team late last summer.

The cost for unused beds was the result of a contract between ICE and GEO Group that pays the private company for space to house a guaranteed minimum of 1,181 detainees. The facility maintained 31% of that population on average between October 2021 and August 2022, according to the report.

The Office of the Inspector General urged ICE to review its needs at the facility on the Tacoma Tideflats, which opened in 2004, and to accordingly re-work the guaranteed minimum in its contract.

“We understand the need to balance the requirements of both ICE and the contract service provider,” the report said. “However, OIG is concerned with the extent to which ICE is paying for unused bedspace and ICE’s stewardship of taxpayer money.”

In a statement to The News Tribune attributed to “an ICE spokesperson,” the agency said that housing decisions were made on a case-by-case basis and regularly reassessed. Population limitations, ICE noted, were outside of its control.

“ICE uses a variety of detention models to meet agency needs and maintain detention standards, while achieving the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds,” the spokesperson said. “COVID-19 restrictions and required social distancing have previously prevented ICE from housing at the guaranteed minimum for the time period noted in the OIG report.”

In responses attached to the report, ICE expanded on the factors that restricted the detention center’s population.

The agency pointed to an August 2021 temporary restraining order granted in federal court in Seattle that mandated ICE test detainees for COVID-19 before transferring them to the facility, formerly and more commonly known as the Northwest Detention Center. The order prevented any transfers otherwise.

The population also has been limited by ICE’s own preventative measures against the disease, the agency wrote. In pandemic response requirements issued for two years by ICE beginning in April 2020, it was suggested that efforts should be made to reduce the population at facilities housing ICE detainees to 75% of capacity.

The contractual guaranteed minimum appeared to be derived from taking into account that downsized capacity. While the detention center is capable of holding 1,575 detainees, three-quarters of that is 1,181.

“The use of a contract with a guaranteed minimum allows both ICE and its service provider to successfully achieve a cost-effective balance between ICE’s operational requirements and recurring or fixed costs that are not directly impacted by the number of detainees present at (the facility),” ICE wrote in its response to the OIG.

In a reply to ICE’s response, included within the report, the OIG noted that President Joe Biden ended the national emergency related to COVID-19 on April 10, removing many of the barriers to filling beds at the detention center. OIG also pointed out that ICE had been paying for significant amounts of unused bed space well before the federal court order to test detainees for COVID-19.

The average daily population at the facility was 552 detainees, including men and women, during the two fiscal years preceding the court’s mandate, the OIG said. ICE paid Geo Group $138.86 per detainee per day as of October 2021.

GEO Group referred questions about its contract to ICE. The company touted a sweeping list of services offered at the facility: medical care, legal services, religious worship, daily meals and recreation, among them.

“We are committed to ensuring that we provide the highest quality services possible, consistent with all contractual requirements as they are determined by ICE,” spokesperson Chris Ferreira said in a statement. “Importantly, we note that ICE determines what type and amount of support the agency wishes to procure.”

Inspectors log issues

Civil immigration detention centers have long factored into the national debate over immigration. The Tacoma facility has been a hotbed of controversy, with critics frequently denouncing poor conditions for detainees awaiting immigration proceedings.

The question raised over ICE’s spending of taxpayer dollars was the only disputed and unresolved issue of eight recommendations made by the OIG in the wake of its unannounced visit.

Federal inspectors found the Northwest Detention Center to be in compliance with national detention standards for housing and hygiene, responsiveness to requests, detainee access to legal services, recreation, segregation and use of force, as well as court-ordered COVID-19 protocols, according to the report.

ICE leadership was “pleased” by those findings, ICE acting chief of staff Deborah Fleischaker wrote in an April 25 memo to Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.

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“ICE remains committed to ensuring that noncitizens in its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” Fleischaker wrote.

The facility also drew scrutiny from inspectors. They found significant medical staff shortages, issues with food quality and storage, and untimely responses to detainee grievances — including a practice of responding to both grievances and requests in a language not understood by the filing detainee.

Inspectors reviewed 100 random electronic requests submitted by detainees to the facility or ICE between March 1 and Aug. 31, 2022, and found that only five were returned to detainees in the same language as their request. Of 60 electronic grievances filed over the same period, more than half of the detention staff’s responses were in a different language than the one used by the detainee.

“The facility and ICE cannot ensure the detainee will understand the response if it is not written in the language used by the detainee,” the report said.

In its response, included within the report, ICE said that it has added more workers to screen grievances to respond to them more quickly and disseminated a training video to staff in December on responding to detainees. It also said the facility’s grievance system has a built-in function that automatically translates text into multiple languages for grievances filed electronically via tablet.

After its site visit, the OIG reviewed 34 new non-English grievances submitted to the facility. It still found that less than half were responded to in a language understood by the detainee, noting that “more needs to be done” to bridge the gap.

‘The perfect formula’

In the past two years, detainees generally have filed grievances over issues related to their cases, including lacking regular access to ICE or the facility’s law library, according to Maru Mora Villalpando, the founder of La Resistencia, an immigrant advocacy organization.

Detainee requests vary, from reading glasses to changing bedding, she said in an interview, adding that the facility’s grievance and request process is inherently difficult.

“Now you add to that the language?” she said. “It’s the perfect formula so people won’t complain.”

One form of historical protest among detainees has been a hunger strike. Mora Villalpando said she had heard from detainees that roughly 80 started one on Monday, noting that it would be the third this year at the facility. The latest strike, she believed, was over food quality — an issue also addressed by the OIG.

Inspectors found at least 13 instances of food with “best by,” packed or production dates as far back as 2019, according to the OIG’s report. Those included boxes of frozen turkey breasts dated September 2019 and later confirmed by ICE to have been specially ordered for Thanksgiving nearly three years before the OIG team’s visit.

The turkey was ultimately discarded. ICE said all food items questioned by inspectors were thrown out and that facility staff will continue to conduct inventory audits to ensure food is used in a timely and safe manner.

The OIG’s report also showed that more than 30% of the facility’s medical staff positions were vacant and that preventative health care screening measures were inconsistent. In its response, ICE said it has developed local rules on preventative services, in the absence of national guidelines, and allocated 15 federal clinical positions at the facility expected to all be filled by late September.

The OIG considered its recommendation to confront the staffing shortage resolved but kept it open until it receives an updated staffing plan showing that vacancies are filled. Other recommendations in the report were resolved and either closed or left open, depending on whether they had yet been adequately addressed.

Although it did not lead to a recommendation from the OIG, one issue documented in the report traces back to a lawsuit over detainee pay filed against GEO Group by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2017.

A federal jury agreed in October 2021 that the company violated Washington’s minimum wage law by paying detainees $1 per day as part of ICE’s voluntary work program that allows detainees opportunities to earn money. Geo Group had argued that detainees were not company employees and that it adhered to federal rules that set the minimum compensation of $1 per day, court transcripts show.

The company was ordered to pay more than $23 million combined for unlawful earnings in that case and in back pay related to a class-action lawsuit brought by detainee laborers.

The OIG noted that GEO Group discontinued the program at the facility in October 2021 rather than opt to pay detainees minimum wage for their work moving forward. Instead the company now employs a combination of contractors, local janitors and temporary staff to fill the need for basic services such as cleaning bathrooms and doing laundry.

GEO Group’s response to The News Tribune did not address questions about the end of the voluntary work program. Mora Villalpando, who criticized the daily $1 pay as exploitative, said the program’s termination after the jury verdict showed that it had not been mutually beneficial as GEO had claimed.

“It shows that it was not a win-win at all,” she said. “It was a win for (Geo Group) only.”

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