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Second Hunger Strike Met With Pepper Spray at Washington GEO Group Lockup Where ICE Detainees Allege Widespread Sexual Abuse

by Keith Sanders

On February 4, 2023, a crowd of 50 people gathered outside the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. They were there to support a hunger strike staged by some 100 detainees held inside by private prison giant GEO Group under contract for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To their demands for improved conditions, GEO Group guards responded with pepper spray.

Corporate Relations Manager Christopher Ferreira said guards “were able to diffuse the initial disruption, with more than half of the detainees complying,” but he said “the remaining detainees continued to be unresponsive to staff orders,” resulting in “use of chemical agents.”

Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of La Resistencia NW, said “ICE should be held responsible for GEO’s gassing of the undocumented people detained.” The group is supporting the strike, a repeat of a smaller protest staged by nine detainees in late May 2022.

In turn, that earlier action followed a report issued by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (CHR) on May 16, 2022, which found detainee complaints of sexual assault and abuse are routinely ignored at the lockup.

CHR uncovered systematic problems with reporting standards mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Passed by Congress in 2003, the law requires U.S. prisons and jails to implement “zero tolerance” for sexual assault and abuse by developing systems to report, investigate and prevent sex crimes among those in detention. In 2014, ICE’s parent agency, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), implemented PREA policies at ICE detention facilities. But that did little to prevent sexual assault and abuse, much less expose the extent of those crimes, CHR said.

To understand how ineffective PREA standards are at ICE detention centers, and to determine how many sexual assaults occur inside them, CHR researchers focused on NWDC, which has a history of sexual assault and abuse claims. Reviewing thousands of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from ICE, Tacoma police and GEO Group, they found a “labyrinth of reporting systems [that] simply doesn’t work,” said CHR Director Angelina Godoy.

PREA reporting problems at NWDC have led to a lack of accountability and prevention, CHR found. Detainees have multiple ways to report sexual assault or abuse, including a hotline. However, NWDC officials “often failed to track these alleged incidents and respond to them appropriately,” the report found. Moreover, gaps among the various reporting methods leave the full extent of sexual abuse at NWDC unknown.

This has resulted despite policies requiring any alleged sexual assault to trigger immediate reporting, even before the claim’s credibility is assessed. Also required is a two-step investigative response: First, full cooperation with criminal investigators by law enforcement agencies and, second, once a criminal investigation is complete, an in-house investigation must follow. Both were found to be inadequate at NWDC.

For instance, in March 2015 and February 2017, Tacoma police received calls about sexual assault and abuse from NWDC staff. But CHR found no documentation was reported to ICE. The study concluded that inadequate reporting systems produce numerous documents that obfuscate sexual abuse and misconduct instead of exposing it. See: Conditions at the NWDC: Reporting of Sexual Abuse and Assault, Center for Human Rights, Univ. of Washington.

The university has also filed suit against DHS in federal court for the Western District of Washington, accusing the agency of letting GEO Group stonewall some records requests in violation of FOIA. That suit is scheduled for a bench trial in February 2024. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Univ. of Wash. v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., USDC (W.D. Wa.), Case No. 2:22-cv-01329. 

Additional sources: Fight Back! News, KNKX, Seattle Times

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