A public good may spring from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The de facto immigrant prison, a private, contractor-operated facility at maximum capacity, violates basic human rights.
Earlier this year, 750 of the prison’s 1,300 detainees went on a hunger strike to protest conditions. Concerns included the lack of essential health services, maltreatment by guards and the arbitrary use of solitary confinement.
The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, introduced Thursday by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. and co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene, addresses the problem head on.
“After visiting the NWDC to speak with detainees on hunger strike, it was clear that more enforceable standards were necessary,” Smith said. “Many detainees are fathers and mothers who have committed no crime, yet are being held in unacceptable conditions for a prolonged period of time. This legislation is focused on improving living conditions for detainees and increasing oversight and transparency.”
The NWDC falls under the rubric of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and holds everyone from lawful permanent residents with green cards to undocumented aliens.
Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, standards at an ICE facility are not set by Congress, and Congress isn’t authorized to review an institution’s performance audit.
That will change if Smith’s legislation passes. Detention center standards would be federally regulated and a rule-making committee would loop in stakeholders including medical experts, Smith’s office said. It also would require unannounced audits and elbow the Department of Homeland Security to provide more humane alternatives to detention.
DelBene’s communications director, Viet Shelton, said that the congresswoman “strongly believes Congress must take responsible, meaningful actions to improve the standards and conditions at these detention centers.”
The NWDC’s troubles trace to legislation passed in 1996 that requires “expedited removal” of the undocumented, lumping together refugees and asylum seekers and extending the period for detention without a hearing.
An award-winning 2012 series by Lewis Kamb of the Tacoma News Tribune and Carol Smith of InvestigateWest revealed the scope of the problem, as well as the institution’s invisibility.
How fundamental is this? “Detainees shall not be subject to inhumane treatment” reads Sec. 2. of the bill. Other provisions include rape prevention and accommodations for pregnant women, victims of torture and the elderly.
This is about human dignity, American values and human rights. It needs to pass.