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Report Criticizes Conditions in U.S. Immigrant Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington

Report Criticizes Conditions in U.S. Immigrant Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington

by David M. Reutter

Conditions at the federal immigration center in Tacoma, Washington, are substandard and not in compliance with national standards, “much less international human rights law.” The is the conclusion drawn by a 65-page report issued by the Seattle University School of Law International Human Rights Clinic in collaboration with One America, an immigrant rights group.

The report examines conditions at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma. It is located on the Tacoma Tideflats, a former toxic waste dump site. Originally open with 500 beds in 2004, it now has 1,000 beds with plans to add another 500. The facility is operated by the GEO Group, who is paid $95 per day per detainee.

While officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) say the report is “filled with inaccuracies and vague allegations,” the conditions are similar to other reports on conditions operated by GEO. Moreover, the report was compiled from interviews with 46 people: 41 detainees, a family member, and four attorneys representing detainees. The investigation also made two tours of NWDC, followed by a question and answer session with ICE and GEO officials.

Immigration detention is the fastest growing form of incarceration. It expanded from 95,000 people in 2001 to over 300,000 in 2007. Multiple reports have been issued that detail continuing abuses within America’s immigration detention centers. On March 5, 2008, the United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the Rights of Migrants issued a scathing report against the United States and the immigration detention system.

For the most part, the conditions at NWDC coincide with the conditions at other such centers in the United States, NWDC has detainees from 80 different countries, and it admitted 8,849 people in fiscal year 2006-2007. In February 2008, it held 997 detainees.

Legal due process is a serious issue. NWDC officials do all they can to inhibit that process. Lawyers say there are numerous obstacles to represent the detainees. “Those obstacles result in many attorneys not representing detainees, even those who are able to pay,” says the report. The legal consultation room is too small, lawyers are required to wait 1 to 2 hours to see detainees, guards will barge into a room, and detainees are often moved to other centers without notice to lawyers.

The detainees consistently say that they are pressured to sign papers, which are in English, whether they understand them or not. The guards use psychological pressure by way of verbal threats and even physical intimidation. NWDC guards are frequently belligerent with detainees.

Strip searches occur after attorney visits. One female described being told to open her legs so the guard could look into her vagina. The worst tale of treatment came from a transfer of detainees on two flights to Alabama.
In preparation for a work place raid in Oregon, detainees were loaded on planes in the summer of 2007. They were handcuffed and shackled. They were not allowed to use the bathrooms on the flight. Before the plane took off, a mentally ill Cambodian detainee provoked guards by yelling at them. Four guards “began to hit and punch the detainee, mostly in the face.”
The prohibition on bathroom use during the seven hour flight resulted in three detainees defecating in their seats, requiring them to sit in it during the remainder of the flight.
Medical care at NWDC is poor. “For example, when a food poisoning outbreak occurred on August 11, 2007, and over 300 detainees complained of severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, officers told detainees they had to wait until the in-house medical clinic opened in the morning before the could receive treatment.”
The detainees “labeled the food as bad, watery, tasteless, rotten, poor quality, low quantity, overcooked, repetitive and cold.” They say “their food occasionally smells bad, appears rotten, has been served on dirty trays, and has even contained bugs.” One detainee has lost 50 pounds of the 190 he weighed upon entry at NWDC. The doctor at NWDC “told him to stop exercising because the food he receives does not provide enough nutrition to continue daily physical exercise.”
While GEO operates places like NWDC for profit and ICE wants to house detainees cheaply, they do so at the loss of things of greater value. “As Americans concerned with upholding our Constitution and assuring justice and human rights, we should remember that America is degraded when the government fails to uphold those very rights that make us a great country,” said Pramila Jayapel, executive director of One America. The report, Voices from Detention, A Report on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center, is available on PLN’s website.

Additional source: Seattle Times.

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