Posted May 8, 2017 by Cooper Point Journal in News

Update on Detention Center Hunger Strike

By Jasmine Kozak-Gilroy

On April 15, the Tacoma News Tribune published an opinion piece by GEO Group vice president James Black regarding recent protests against the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in which he claimed, “The center has a longstanding record providing high quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure and humane environment.” The residents living in these “high quality” conditions seem to feel otherwise, as the hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center continues into its third week. As of April 28, the NWDC Resistance reports that 50 detainees are still refusing to eat, with 100 detainees also refusing to purchase goods from commissary.

James Black attempted to dissuade criticism of the NWDC, saying that the detention center “is subject to routine and unannounced audits and inspections pursuant to national performance-based standards issued by the federal government.” A press release by the NWDC Resistance from April 25 refutes this and similar claims declaring that, “The most recent hunger strikes, part of a history of hunger strikes and activism that dates back years, signals that the NWDC does not meet city, county and state regulations for health and safety. This alone is enough for Tacoma’s Finance Director to revoke GEO Group’s business license to operate the NWDC.”

In the same press release, a representative from the NWDC Resistance stated that the continuation of the hunger strike was due to the unmet needs of detainees, citing specifically that, “demands included properly cleaned laundry, adequate medical care, reasonable commissary prices, raising the $1 per day prison wage, more nutritional cafeteria food, and contact visits ‘so parents can hug their children’.” Conditions, detainees say, have worsened under the Trump administration, and, “The Trump administration has staffed the ICE deportation force with openly anti-immigrant officials with links to white supremacist organizations, leaving people detained with little choice but to put their bodies on the line to fight for their basic dignity.”

On April 25 the NWDC Resistance also called for supporters to attend a Tacoma city council meeting regarding zoning codes for correctional facilities and the NWDC in particular, asking supporters to participate in an organised display of solidarity with the detainees. The City Council was set to discuss interim regulations that would halt the construction of any new private correctional facilities and expansion of any current private facilities, require special permitting for the expansion or construction of any public correctional facilities, and disallowing the expansion of public correctional facilities into multi-family and light industrial zoning districts. These interim regulations would expire in six months, putting them up for review this coming September.

From the start, Mayor Strickland seemed unwilling to hear the concerns of NWDC Resistance member and supporters, beginning the public hearing with, “This is not the time to discuss the Northwest Detention Center’s business license, conditions of the Detention Center, or the Federal Government’s immigration policy,” asking instead that written comments be sent to the city clerk’s office.  “I sent a letter to the CEO of GEO Group asking about practices there including due process, how people are being treated, both employees and detainees, and asked them to provide a certificate saying that they are complying and doing what they need to do according to city, state, and federal law.” Describing a guided tour trip she took to of the detention center with several other lawmakers, Strickland said, “The detention center was not what I expected. I will just leave it at that for now. There were a lot of services that went on down there that I didn’t know took place. I did not necessarily want to see the people in solitary confinement because I do not think that is respectful.” Then, speaking to elected officials in particular she said, “If you want to tour the facility, take the time to go down there and see what goes on there. There is a lot of conversation about this, there is a lot of political theatre around this, but we have a responsibility that if people are going to be detained, that they are getting the food that is nutritious, and that they are being treated with respect and dignity.”

City Council member Walker Lee, who identified herself as an immigrant rights advocate, stated that what she saw in the tour of the NWDC was “acceptable.”

During the hearing, representatives from the NWDC Resistance, other immigrant rights oriented organizations, and general community members expressed individual concerns and read written statements from detainees. The first speaker identified themselves as a Pacific Northwest native, declaring that they were “disturbed” to learn that there was a detention center in Tacoma, explaining that, “This facility is a part of a system. We are all part of a system. We can recognize that it is a system based in laws and it is just there, or we can recognize it as a system that is maybe unfair and should not be enabled.”

The following speaker spoke clearly against the particular injustices faced by detainees stating, “You don’t go on hunger strike to falsely declare something,” and, defending the detainees experiences being detained in the center against Mayor Striker’s and the Council’s experiences visiting the NWDC said, “On one hand, you were shown a tour where there’s recreation and all this stuff, and there’s families saying their loved ones get one hour outside, period. They are saying their loved ones don’t get protein, and that’s why they have to pay in the commissary,” continuing, “Why are we trusting GEO in their presentation to you?”

Another speaker seemingly agreed with this comment saying, “I would encourage you to keep in mind that whenever here’s an inspection people are going to be on their best behavior.”

In her introduction to the public hearing the Mayor of Tacoma attributed the existence of the detention center and conditions within the center to federal immigration laws and laws that mandate detention centers retain a certain number of beds at any given time. The vice president of GEO Group similarly deflected responsibility to federal law stating, “Local leaders and residents may rightfully have concerns with and objections to federal policies related to immigration and a host of other matters. But utilizing city land-use authority to voice those concerns or objections is not the appropriate process or venue. The city of Tacoma and its leaders should instead invest their time, energy and resources on advocating for policy changes to federal government representatives who are responsible for setting those policies.”

A press release by the NWDC Resistance addresses these claims, declaring, “Tacoma City leaders said they have no control over federal immigration policy, but advocates noted that City Council has the power to change municipal code, and the Finance Director can revoke GEO Group’s license to operate the detention center.”

When asked by Walker Lee if the city has the ability to revoke their license, the city manager said that, “We have that ability regarding any business in the city of Tacoma, that’s not what we are talking about tonight, and there has been no trigger to involve us in revocation proceedings with the GEO group in any way shape or form. That simply is not an issue.”

A former detainee of the detention center, speaking in the public hearing, discussing his experiences said, “From the war on drugs to the war on immigrants the private prison industry has made thousands of dollars exploiting communities of color. They do not see us a human beings but as dollar signs in a spreadsheet. I have personally suffered that treatment, from lack of food, medicine, visitation rights, even paying three dollars a minute to call my to loved ones. I wish that no one else has to. I know there is a lot more you can do.”

The April 25 press release similarly describes the situation saying, “Local governments like the City of Tacoma have the ability to choose their own destiny.”