The Washington state Legislature took action Tuesday to shut down the Northwest detention center in Tacoma, one of the largest facilities in the country holding people the government is seeking to deport.
Despite Republican objections in the Senate, lawmakers passed a bill banning most private detention facilities. In Washington, only one facility currently fits that definition, the 1,575-bed Tacoma facility formally known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center.
House Bill 1090 allows the federal government's contract with the facility's operator, the GEO Group, to run its course, ending in 2025. Assuming it is signed by the governor, it will make Washington the 23rd state to outlaw private detention, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo.
President Joe Biden in January directed the Department of Justice to end contracts for private prisons, but exempted facilities run for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ortiz-Self said she believes ICE was left out to give the federal government time to look more comprehensively at immigration reform.
"We wanted to act and we wanted to act now," Ortiz-Self said.
Many immigration activists want to stop locking up people caught living in the U.S. unlawfully, and a federal bill, sponsored by Democrats including Washington Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith, would substantially scale back detention as well as ban private facilities nationwide.
A statement by a trade group representing GEO, called the Day 1 Alliance, cast the Washington state bill in this broader context, calling it "political theater."
"The Northwest ICE Processing Center has operated in Tacoma for more than 20 years under Democratic and Republican Presidential Administrations, offering the same high-quality services to the federal government throughout," the statement said. "The facility operates today under the same strict performance standards that existed under President Obama's administration. So, the question must be asked, why are Washington State politicians expressing faux outrage today?"
Ortiz-Self said the aim of the bill is not immigration reform — although she questions the need to imprison people "looking for refuge or to feed their families" — but protecting the rights of all incarcerated individuals in facilities run for a profit.
"It's just morally unjust in general from what we are seeing across the United States, how private detention facilities are beholden to their stakeholders to make money versus providing the services that are needed," Ortiz-Self said.
She said such facilities don't ensure that workers are kept safe and paid adequately, nor that those detained have adequate food. "You know we have reports that this facility had maggots in their food," Ortiz-Self said, referring to complaints by some people being held at the Tacoma facility.
Detainees have complained for years not only about the food, but about jobs that pay $1 a day, alleged rough treatment by guards and medical care they say is inadequate. Wave after wave of hunger strikes have taken place at the facility.
Angelina Godoy, director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, pointed to reports by the human rights center that she said show systemic abuses. One report said the detention center put detainees in solitary confinement for an average of 70 days — more than twice as long as the national average at similar facilities.
The GEO Group has strongly rejected accusations of abuse and poor treatment of detainees. It declined to make a statement after the legislative vote, and referred questions to Day 1 Alliance.
The trade group's statement, in addition to questioning legislators' political motives, noted that the federal government, not GEO, provides medical care at the facility and said detainees get "modern recreation amenities, and three nutritious daily meals."
While the bill got some Republican support in the House, the Senate GOP caucus was united in opposition. Some said the state would be hypocritical to enact such a bill given problems in its own prisons, including rampant coronavirus cases. Others said a better approach would be more oversight by the federal government.
"Does the state have authority to enact this law?" asked Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup.
The GEO Group asked the same question in court when California enacted a similar law. A federal judge largely upheld the law in a tentative ruling.
"My office reviewed this legislation carefully, we supported it, and we're prepared to defend it in court if it's challenged," Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said of the local bill.
Assuming the Tacoma facility closes, where will immigrants detained in Washington go? The Day 1 Alliance says they will merely be sent to another state, farther from family and friends.
Godoy, of the Center for Human Rights, questions the need for immigrant detention, but said if it continues, the least number of people will be affected now. Decreased enforcement because of COVID-19, and lawsuits seeking the release of vulnerable detainees, have dramatically shrunk the number of detainees at the Tacoma facility, to roughly 200 as of mid-March.
Yet, she said, a contract with the federal government still ensures GEO is paid for almost 1,200 beds a day, even if they're empty.