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Northwest Detention Center: inside the fence

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(Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series about the Northwest Detention Center, located on the Tacoma Tideflats and home to up to 1,575 detainees. Last week’s edition covered the City Council’s concerns about the privately-managed facility and its temporary moratorium against potential expansion, although none are planned. Next week will give voice to former detainees and those who comfort them during and after their detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials provided the tour with the ground rules that no recognizable photos of detainees or staff would be taken. The tour otherwise included anywhere and everywhere.)
The halls, common areas and detention pods of the Northwest Detention Center were surprisingly quiet. And they were almost Disneyland clean. Detainees, guards and staff went about their day-to-day lives and duties with few words that didn’t echo around the concrete walls that included murals of sports and flags, courtesy of detainee labor who sought something to fill their idle time as they waited for their immigration hearings.
The GEO Group built the center in 2004 to house 500 detainees and expanded it to 1,575 in 2009. On tour day, the count was 1,262 men and 138 women.
The center was designed to be a facility to temporarily house detainees as they waited for a judge to decide if they can stay in the United States or be deported. The center is operated for Immigration and Custom Enforcement through a federal contract with The GEO Group, a for-profit operator of detention facilities around the world.
The average stay in the early years of operation was about 30 days. It has now tripled to about 122 days as more detainees challenge their deportations. Those longer stays didn’t add “enrichment programs” such as drug and alcohol abuse support groups, life-skills classes or vocational training that are commonplace in longer-term facilities.
Detainees are housed in “pods” of 50 to 64 people based on a four-tiered security system. Detainees are either low, medium low, medium high or high risk based on their criminal history and behavior. Lows can be housed with other lows. Mediums can live with other mediums, and highs be housed with other highs. The four tiers but three housing options allow flexibility as the population mix changes. The pods themselves are either single beds on open floors, surrounding a common area, or bunk beds in more traditional cells with doors that ring a common area, communal televisions and Xbox gaming systems that can only be heard through wireless headphones. Detainees spend most of their time in their pods, since meals, commissary orders and books are all delivered from carts. Each pod has a simplified computer terminal to file complaints or to send and receive email for 50 cents through a monitored system, SmartJailMail.com.
Detainees can register for up to an hour of “yard time” each day, where they can shoot hoops and play soccer on a truncated soccer pitch or spend up to five hours a week in the law library. That leaves days turning into weeks, that turn into months with few activities other than reading donated books, communally watching television or sleeping. The food menu rotates every six weeks and it also includes 21 holiday meals each year.
Chicken dinner is apparently always a hit.
Crews of detainees work in four-hour shifts to prepare meals that tally at least 3,000 calories a day. Meals on tour day included a breakfast of grits, French toast, turkey ham, fruit, coffee and milk followed by lunch of a bean and cheese burrito, rice, beans, salsa, salad with dressing, peanut butter cake and sweet tea. Dinner was picadillo, rice, lentil beans, cabbage, fruit, dinner roll and punch. All meals have heart-healthy and vegetarian options. Meals average $1.60 each and are the same offered to guards and staff in their lunchroom. They are both free to guards and detainees alike.
Outside of that menu, detainees can order specialty foods and other items from the commissary at market-rate prices using a computer-based ordering system and money from family and friends. Hot sauce is a perennial best seller. Jobs inside the fences are hard to come by, even with a wage of $1 a day.
“There are more detainees than are jobs, so we sort of create work for them to do,” said ICE Field Office Director Bryan Wilcox, noting that sweeping a pod for 20 minutes gains a dollar, the same as a shift in the coveted kitchen or the laundry room.
Detainees receive a medical and dental checkup when they enter the 80-person medical wing of the facility. The screenings include x-rays to guard against any tuberculosis outbreaks, or the spread of other communicable diseases as well as to determine any medical needs detainees might have, most commonly diabetes and high-blood pressure. Mental health cases, much like those in society in general, are on the rise. Roughly one in six detainees have mental health concerns beyond low-grade depression born from detention and the stress of possible deportation. Treatments, prescription drugs and diagnostic tests are done at the facility, while specialty services require a shuttle to Saint Joseph’s Medical Center or Tacoma General.
“There is not a day that goes by without an ER run,” Wilcox said. One detainee was rushed away for chest pains during the tour, for example.
Detainees receive a week’s worth of medication when they are released, or 30 days of prescription drugs if they have tuberculosis or HIV.
The alphabet soup of agencies, namely Department of Justice, ICE, U.S. Public Health Service, Geo Group, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Office of Principle Legal Advisors and Northwest Immigration Rights Project all want more space to clear the hearings bottleneck at the center and provide other services. Nothing can happen under the moratorium.
“We look forward to having an opportunity to continue to meet with city and local leaders to dispel the misinformation about our company and address this misguided action,” said Pablo E. Paez, Vice President of Corporate Relations for The GEO Group Inc. “Our long-standing partnership as a service provider to the federal government has helped provide culturally responsive, safe, and humane environments that meet the non-penal needs of the residents in ICE’s care. We are proud of our historically strong performance record as a service provider helping meet the government’s needs and building strong partnerships within the communities we serve, while treating our residents with the respect and dignity they deserve. … We’re constantly reviewing the facility’s needs in partnership and consultation with ICE. Future changes and additions to support areas such as medical, office space, and courtrooms would only continue to enhance the services provided to the individuals in ICE’s care and halting said improvements would be in direct contradiction to the concerns expressed publicly by city leaders.”

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