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Washington State Governor Signs Bill Banning Private Prisons Statewide

Currently, there is only one private, for-profit detention camp in the state, the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma. The facility is operated by the GEO Group on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a result of the new law, it will close when the GEO Group’s contract comes to an end in 2025. Crucially, the law will also prevent any other private facilities from opening in the future.

There were a few major objections to the law — mainly from Republicans — about whether the government had the authority to take the action. Some suggested that a better approach would simply be more oversight. But one critique of HB1090 is compelling: is it hypocritical for the state to enact such a bill, given the countless problems and abuses in its own prisons?

It is a fair point — especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no such thing as safe or fair incarceration.

But as the text of the law notes, those confined in private prisons usually face particularly unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Private companies have been known to cut corners in order to maximize their profits. “The United States Department of Justice office of the Inspector General found in 2016 that privately operated prisons ‘incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than 5 comparable BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] institutions,” the law states. Private companies also operate with far less oversight and fewer resources.

According to a March 31, 2021 article in the Seattle Times, the NWDC is known for maggots in the food, a complete lack of medical care, and extended use of solitary confinement, with an average of 70 days in isolation. Those detained in the facility have coordinated countless hunger strikes, and are still organizing closely with La Resistencia.

House Bill 1090 was largely an instrumental move, aimed at closing a particular detention center in a way that was legislatively feasible. It’s far easier to convince a state legislature to close private prisons and detention centers, as at least 22 other states have already done to some extent, than to prohibit contracts with ICE.

In light of widespread calls to abolish prisons outright this past summer, the state legislature was more willing to pass this legislation than in years prior. Just last year, a similar bill was pushed to the legislature by La Resistencia and other advocacy groups, but only passed after significant amendments were added that largely checked the bill’s intended impact.

This year, the law passed with few alterations. The question that logically follows is where people currently held at the NWDC will go. There are about 200 prisoners currently detained (despite the nearly 1,200 beds GEO has been getting paid for). Per the Seattle Times, this is because of decreased enforcement in the age of COVID-19, as well as countless lawsuits that have sought and secured the release of particularly vulnerable people.

Importantly, those held at the NWDC are being civilly detained — meaning it is a matter of their immigration status, rather than any criminal charges or sentencing. So La Resistencia, which has been organizing to close the facility since 2014, is pivoting to focus on the transition period between now and 2025. They are calling for Governor Inslee to stop any Washington Department of Corrections transfers, and instead free prisoners to return to their homes and communities as soon as possible. 


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Related legal case

Moss v. Speybroeck