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News / Northwest

State inspectors denied entry to privately-run immigration detention center in Tacoma

The Department of Health has received over 300 complaints from detainees about the facility’s conditions. A state law meant to give state agencies more oversight is tied up in court.

By GRACE DENG, Washington State Standard
Published: January 25, 2024, 7:36am

Washington state health and workplace inspectors have repeatedly been denied entry to a for-profit federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, where detainees have filed hundreds of complaints over issues like neglected hygiene, poor food and inadequate medical care.

Inspectors attempted to enter the facility under House Bill 1470, a state law passed in 2023 that was meant to bring more state oversight to the Northwest ICE Processing Center. Detainees have held hunger strikes in protest of the facility’s conditions for at least a decade, including one late last year that stretched more than two weeks.

The GEO Group, the company running the facility under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said they denied entry to state officials in late 2023 at the direction of ICE. State officials said GEO Group told them they could not enter due to “litigation.”

“An entity does not become exempt from state law by simply filing a lawsuit,” the state Department of Health said in court documents.

Dueling lawsuits by GEO Group and the state Department of Health are playing out in federal district court in Tacoma.

The Department of Health is seeking a ruling that would allow inspectors to access the facility.. In court filings, the agency says it “believes, based upon the complaints, that the health and safety of detainees is at risk.”

GEO Group is suing the state over HB 1470, arguing the policy is unconstitutional because it interferes with federal immigration enforcement.

The company claims that fully complying with the state law would put it in breach of its contract to operate the facility, raising the prospect of $160 million in lost revenue. GEO also says that complying with HB 1470 would require building upgrades estimated to cost over $3 million, including a complete redesign of the heating, cooling and ventilation system at the detention center.

Department of Labor and Industries officials have also attempted to inspect the facility using authority granted by HB 1470 to investigate detainee working conditions. After being denied entry on Dec. 27, officials returned on Dec. 29 with a warrant issued by Pierce County Superior Court and were denied entry again. GEO Group has filed a court motion to block the warrant.

“We are not done, and will use the tools at our disposal to ensure the safety and health of workers in the facility,” an agency spokesperson said in an email.

GEO directed all requests for comment to ICE. The agency did not immediately return a request for comment.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, who sponsored HB 1470, called the current situation “atrocious.”

“That’s just crazy. It’s the law. No private entity can be that powerful,” Ortiz-Self said. “If you are a business operating in our state you have to follow the laws of the state and that includes businesses like GEO.”

Conditions in the facility

Northwest ICE Processing Center is the only for-profit federal detention center in Washington and one of the largest in the country, with a capacity for about 1,575 people. From mid-2021 to 2022, the facility had an average population of 374 detainees, according to a May 2023 report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Department of Health officials attempted to enter the facility after receiving over 300 complaints from detainees, at least 213 of them between April and November last year, according to court documents.

Among the complaints, detainees reported food containing “foreign objects, including burned plastic, metal string, rope and splinters.”

Other allegations include insufficient food, dismissal of medical needs and misuse of solitary confinement. Detainees reported that their clothes are rarely laundered and when washed, return wet and “dirtier than before.” One complaint detailed by Department of Health officials said a detainee with mental health issues soiled their clothing and was refused clean clothing by a guard.

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Medical concerns reported included stroke, paralysis, asthma, internal bleeding and heart conditions. In one instance, a detainee with a broken arm was given only Ibuprofen and did not receive a cast until days after the incident, according to detainee complaints included in court filings.

La Resistencia, a group led by undocumented immigrants calling for the closure of the facility, has filed 287 complaints with the Department of Health as of Jan. 22. Maru Mora Villalpando, who heads the group, said they file the complaints on behalf of detainees because “even just obtaining the forms has been a challenge” within the facility.

“Many have told us they sent the complaints but we are not certain the mail was actually sent,” Villalpando said.

The number and nature of the complaints aren’t surprising to Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, the director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights. The detainees’ complaints are consistent with the center’s extensive research on the Northwest ICE Processing Center, Godoy said.

The center’s most recent report is titled “Calls to Nowhere” because researchers found that when detainees call the sexual assault reporting hotline, ICE officials “literally don’t follow up on those calls at all,” Godoy said.

“And that’s a case of actual sexual assault, which is a federal crime, much less concerns about food and laundry,” she added. 

State inspectors denied entry

Department of Health inspectors attempted to enter the facility twice in November, according to court documents.

GEO Group staff appeared to not know the Department of Health had authority to investigate the facility, said agency inspector Miko Nanto in a written affidavit. Northwest ICE Processing Center’s facility manager, Bruce Scott, said in his affidavit that the state health department left a voice message in July requesting information about the food provided at the facility.

During both visits, Department of Health inspectors were at first mistaken as Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials by GEO staff. At the start of the first visit on Nov. 14, the person behind the front desk almost allowed the inspectors to enter before officials clarified they worked for the state, Nanto’s affidavit said. Scott eventually denied the inspectors entry.

On Nov. 27, inspectors attempted to enter the facility again and brought Lauren Jenks, who manages the Environmental Public Health Division at the Department of Health.

“I thought that as a high-level executive manager at the Department I might be able to assist in facilitating entry,” Jenks wrote in her affidavit. “I decided I would come along on the next visit to see whether I could do anything to help.”

The facility manager, Scott, told Jenks that inspections had not happened in previous years. Scott then said he needed to consult with ICE officials, later returning and denying her and the other officials entry.

Scott’s affidavit said inspectors “demanded” access to the facility unannounced. HB 1470 requires the Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries to conduct routine, unannounced inspections.

“Throughout the encounter I was smiling,” Nanto’s affidavit said. “When Mr. Scott asked what the nature of our visit was, and I let him know why we were there, there was no aggressive body language at all on my part. I was very conscious of that because I did not want to seem threatening.”

The agency has not attempted to access the facility since the two November visits, according to court documents filed in January.

The Department of Labor and Industries, despite being denied entry twice during attempts to inspect detainee working conditions, is not a plaintiff in the Department of Health lawsuit against GEO Group.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled last month that detainee workers should be paid Washington’s minimum wage. A dispute over that issue is still pending at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Detainees in a voluntary work program were previously being paid $1 a day, which is the federal minimum for detention centers.

The 2022 version of GEO’s detainee handbook states that the work program is not available at Northwest ICE Processing Center. Villalpando said detainees end up having to work anyway due to unhygienic conditions in the facility.

State legislators get involved

Washington’s Legislature passed a law in 2021 aimed at shutting down the detention center by 2025, but it is unenforceable due to a federal court decision from last year over a similar California law that sought to ban private prisons in the state.

Washington conceded after months of consideration that it, too, was bound by the ruling, The Seattle Times reported. 

Ortiz-Self said the detention center remains a top priority for the Legislature’s Latino caucus. She’s spoken with the two state agencies involved, as well as the attorney general’s office, and said that if she can confirm ICE is behind denying inspectors access, she will ask for assistance from Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who serves as president pro tempore in the U.S. Senate.

Godoy, the University of Washington researcher, said much of the responsibility to ensure detainees are provided humane conditions lies with Congress and ICE. Godoy has called on Washington’s congressional delegation to do more than sign letters and introduce stalled legislation. She said lawmakers should demand hearings and assist with public records requests.

She also said ICE could enforce its written policies on facility standards and withdraw its contracts with GEO until the company complies.

“If you get down to the level of brass tacks in the contracts, you can see that ICE has a huge amount of authority in determining how that facility is run,” Godoy said. “ICE has time and again failed to sanction GEO or withhold payment to GEO or do anything.”

“It’s almost comical at this point, the degree to which they try to evade responsibility,” Godoy added.

Standard reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report. 

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.