Prison needs accountability

Sunlight illuminates injustice. And few places beg for illumination more than Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center.

The immigrant prison holds everyone from lawful permanent residents with green cards to undocumented aliens. It is a private, contractor-operated facility at maximum capacity, and under the wing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

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. Many detainees are refugees, navigating an inscrutable system of posting bond. According to a 2008 report on human rights violations at the center prepared by Seattle University School of Law and OneAmerica, a civil and human rights organization, those seeking refugee status are incarcerated an average of 10 months, some as long as 3 years.

Mix a for-profit enterprise with a voiceless detainee population, and behold the tendency for abuse.

Earlier this month, 750 of the prison’s 1,300 detainees went on a hunger strike to protest conditions. Concerns are as elemental as basic health services and the use of solitary confinement. As of Saturday, two detainees remain in isolation, refusing food. ICE has the authority to force-feed both of them.

On March 14, Rep. Adam Smith, whose district includes the facility, released a statement.

“My office initiated a conversation with ICE and the NWDC to directly express my concerns as well as relay questions my constituents and I have about what is going on and what is being done to fix the situation,” Smith said.

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.

“On any given day, 30,000 motorists on a state highway less than a quarter mile away drive past its sprawling gray campus, many unaware of its existence or back-story,” Kamb writes.

That back-story is instructive. Trouble traces to legislation passed in 1996 that requires “expedited removal” of the undocumented, lumping together refugees and green-card holders and extending the period for detention without a hearing.

On Thursday, Smith and a staff member from Rep. Suzan DelBene’s office toured the facility. Major questions that remain include the process for putting someone in isolation and if there is an appeals process; regulations about detainees’ work and pay; nutrition standards, the average length of detention, and the bond process.

The NWDC likely violates basic international human rights norms. That’s why answering these questions and finding a humane resolution is in the public interest.

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