TACOMA — Lawsuits are mounting over state oversight of the privately-run federal immigration detention center in Tacoma after health and workplace inspectors were repeatedly denied access to investigate complaints from detainees and alleged workplace safety violations.
The Department of Labor & Industries on Jan. 30 filed a complaint for an injunction in Pierce County Superior Court against GEO Group, Inc., the contractor that runs the facility on the Tacoma Tideflats for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s part of a battle over a newly adopted law that gave state health and workplace agents authority to conduct unannounced inspections of private detention facilities. The law, which began as House Bill 1470, promised to provide greater protections to people held in private prisons.
When two of L&I’s inspectors arrived in the lobby of the Northwest ICE Processing Center at about 9:30 a.m. Dec. 27 to perform an inspection, according to court records, a GEO Group employee conferred with on-site ICE representatives, and the L&I inspectors were denied entry.
Two days later, the inspectors returned with a warrant signed by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Garold Johnson, but ICE and GEO didn’t budge. Now, L&I is seeking an order to hold the federal contractor in contempt of court for defying the warrant and not allowing unannounced inspections. A notice was filed Friday that the case will be moved to U.S. District Court.
In a motion to quash the warrant, GEO Group said it had no authority to provide access to the detention center to anyone without ICE pre-clearance and approval, according to court records. Doing so would breach security requirements, and the contractor contended it would likely be a violation of federal law.
“The fact that ICE has contracted with a private company to provide secure residential services at the Facility does not change its fundamental status as a federal immigration processing center,” the motion reads. “To state the obvious, there are no ‘private detention facilities’ in the United States — such facilities, by definition, would constitute places of false imprisonment.”
The legal action comes on the heels of dueling lawsuits from the state Department of Health and GEO. The health department is seeking an injunction in U.S. District Court to force the facility to comply with RCW 70.395 because its officials also were denied entry for inspections. Meanwhile, GEO Group has sued Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson in federal court, alleging that the new law is unconstitutional because it preempts federal law. The cases are pending.
The lawmaker who sponsored the bill, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self D-Mukilteo, told the Washington State Standard last week that the situation was “atrocious.”
Court records in the L&I case don’t detail what led the agency to designate GEO Group’s workplace as hazardous. Its motion for contempt notes a history of safety violations. Unannounced inspections were conducted by the government agency at least three times between 2009 and 2014, as well as from 2020 to 2022. Issues were found several times, records state, including violations of “confined space,” respirator program violations, TB exposure and a lack of an exposure plan.
The Department of Health’s attempted inspections were prompted by 277 complaints lodged against GEO between April and December last year for unsafe and unsanitary conditions for detainees, according to court records in L&I’s case.
The detention center has long been a source of complaints over conditions for detainees, who have taken part in numerous hunger strikes since it opened in 2004 to protest poor conditions or delays in meeting with officials about their immigration cases. Tacoma leaders seeking its closure declared victory in 2021 when the state Legislature passed a law banning private prisons and detention centers in Washington state, but the law was rendered powerless last year after a similar California law was found unconstitutional in an appellate court.
Tensions at the detention center reached a high point Feb. 1 last year when guards deployed chemical agents in one unit where detainees had barricaded a door after a morning inspection led to the confiscation of several items, including, according to ICE, a comb with an attached razor blade.
NPR station KUOW on Thursday published video of the moments after chemical agents were deployed, showing at least 17 heavily-armored guards entering the common area of unit F4, some carrying rifles pointed at detainees. ICE has said it was a high-security unit housing detainees including “aggravated felons.”
A guard in the video is heard telling another that there were four “holdouts” in the unit, and they would be brought to “seg.” Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with La Resistencia, a group that advocates for the closing of the facility and an end to deportations, said that meant the detainees were to be brought to “segregation cells” that are essentially solitary confinement. She said detainees call it “the hole.”
Mora Villalpando said La Resistencia and other groups are working to obtain video from multiple security cameras showing chemical agents being deployed. The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights said in a news release issued Friday that the video was released following a lawsuit by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project against ICE for failure to comply with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
“If they didn’t have nothing to hide, they would have already given us the video,” Mora Villalpando said. “They would have already allowed inspectors to go in if they’re doing everything right as they said. But if they’re not doing it, obviously they are hiding a lot of things that show why this detention center should have been closed down years ago.”
GEO spokesperson Christopher Ferreira referred to ICE questions from The News Tribune on Friday about the use of segregation cells as a means of punishing detainees who don’t comply with staff orders. An ICE representative would not confirm whether the individuals in the video were placed in disciplinary segregation or for how long. The disciplinary policy the detention center adheres to states that incidents that could lead to disciplinary segregation are adjudicated by a disciplinary panel. A detainee can generally be held in such confinement for up to 60 days.
Regarding the deployment of chemical agents, Ferreira said their use was in line with strict federal standards.
“Immediately following this incident, all affected detainees were seen by on-site medical staff, and they were cleared with no injuries,” Ferreira said in an email.
Incident reports analyzed by UW’s Center for Human Rights found that chemical agents have been used at the facility 29 times between 2018 and the beginning of 2023.
Two people who have experienced the use of chemical agents at the detention center spoke at a news conference Thursday outside of ICE offices in Seattle, according to UW’s Center for Human Rights. One man, who was not named in the news release, said he suffered lung damage as a result of the chemical agents.
“My lungs have suffered such damage from the gas that I now have to use an inhaler, which I didn’t have to before,” he said, according to the release.