A sign opposing the GEO Group, the private contractor that operates the Northwest Detention Center, hangs on a fence outside the facility in Tacoma on July 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

A sign opposing the GEO Group, the private contractor that operates the Northwest Detention Center, hangs on a fence outside the facility in Tacoma on July 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Washington House aims to close Northwest immigration jail

“It is a moral injustice to profit off of those who are incarcerated,” said Mukilteo’s Rep. Ortiz-Self.

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

The Washington House of Representatives voted Tuesday to ban for-profit, private detention facilities in the state, in a move aimed at shutting down the Northwest immigration detention center in Tacoma.

The 1,575-bed immigration lockup is operated by the GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self of Mukilteo, passed 76-21 and now advances to the state Senate. The bill doesn’t specifically mention the immigration jail, but it’s Washington’s only private detention facility.

It would allow GEO to continue operating the jail until its contract with ICE expires in 2025. Ortiz-Self cited reports of substandard food and medical care in private prisons and noted that many detained there have reportedly undertaken hunger strikes to protest the conditions.

“It is a moral injustice to profit off of those who are incarcerated,” she said.

Opponents said the bill was sure to bring litigation. GEO sued over a similar 2019 measure in California, though a federal judge there largely sided with the state.

The company has long said it provides for the safety of detainees there in accordance with federal standards, and ICE has insisted that many of the “hunger strikes” are orchestrated by activists and involve detainees who turn down provided meals, instead buying other food from the commissary.

Due to detainee releases and precautions related to the pandemic, the population there recently stood at about 300 detainees — less than one-fifth of its maximum capacity.

The Tacoma immigration lockup has long been a target of immigrant rights activists. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing to force GEO to pay the state minimum wage to detainees who perform janitorial and other tasks at the jail.

During a news conference last month, Gov. Jay Inslee said he had not closely reviewed the bill, but that he generally supports banning private detention centers in Washington.

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