Over 100 people are refusing meals at the privately-run Northwest Detention Center, which has a history of controversy and similar strikes.

By Grace Deng / washingtonstatestandard.com / November 17, 2023

On a side street in Tacoma, wedged between railyards and the Puyallup River just off Interstate 5, sits the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest federal immigrant detention facilities in the nation.

It’s privately run, long-mired in controversy and as of Friday, about 100 detainees there were refusing meals to protest conditions at the site.

Hunger strikes have become common at the detention center, with six already this year, according to Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of La Resistencia. The grassroots organization, led by undocumented immigrants, wants the facility closed and has organized a rally outside the gates every night during the current hunger strike, which has gone on for about six days.

A private company, The GEO Group, runs the detention center on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On a chilly night Thursday, there were only five protesters outside of the detention center’s gates — six, if you count the 1-year-old baby that one person had brought along.

Wendy Pantoja, an organizer at La Resistencia, explained that the number of people who show up varies. There were around 15 on Wednesday, she said. But the goal remains the same: it’s important for detainees to know there are people on the outside who care about them.

“Sometimes they hear our chants and shout back,” Pantoja said.

The detainees participating in the hunger strike are demanding immediate release or immediate deportation if they have final deportation orders, “so they are not exposed to inhumane detention conditions,” according to La Resistencia.

“We will get free or die,” a letter the detainees wrote said.

About 105 detainees are on hunger strike, according to La Resistencia. One, Jesus Rodríguez Martinez, told the group that he had lost 20 pounds in a week. Pantoja said another group of detainees is thinking about joining the hunger strike.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that it “is committed to ensuring that all those [in] its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments.” The agency added that “due to privacy rules, ICE is prohibited from discussing individuals engaged in a hunger strike by name or specifics of their case absent the detainee’s consent.”

GEO Group said the group of detainees on hunger strike is “small.”

“We take our role as a service provider to the federal government with the utmost seriousness and strive to treat all those entrusted to our care with dignity and respect,” the company said in a statement. “GEO has a longstanding commitment to respecting the human rights of the individuals in our care and to ethical practices in all aspects of our services.”

History of problems

Troubling conditions at the facility, including allegations of medical neglect, reports of sexual assaults, and the use of tear gas, have been documented in the past, including by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.

“Operation of the facility comes at a terrible human cost,” one UW report reads, describing a lack of follow-up on detainee complaints that contributes to a “cycle of cruelty.”

Dirty laundry, a lack of cleanliness and unsafe food are among the major concerns. Detained people have reported spoiled, uncooked food – even food infested with worms.

“The food is the worst food on earth,” said Chidi Emmanuel Megwa, a detainee who was on a hunger strike in early November. The Standard spoke to Megwa before detainees launched the most recent strike. Megwa is in the facility over financial crimes he claims he did not commit.

But despite years of attention on the site by activists, researchers, and news media, little has changed, according to advocates who want to see it closed.

State efforts to shutter the facility or require more oversight have run into legal obstacles.

At the protest, Pantoja played recordings of phone calls with the detainees, many of whom are in solitary confinement, she said.

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights found that ICE routinely uses solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Solitary confinement is used at the Northwest Detention Center more often than any other immigration detention center in the country, said Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, director of the UW Center for Human Rights.

Between Sept. 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2022, the facility had an average daily population of 374 detainees, with a maximum capacity of 1,575, according to a May report from the Department of Homeland Security. However, the contract between ICE and The GEO Group ensures the federal government pays for 1,181 beds, regardless of how many detainees are held. It’s the only privately-run, for-profit detention center in Washington state.

Many detainees are not from the area where the site is located. Megwa, for example, was transported from California and went on strike because authorities denied his request to be released on bond while awaiting further legal proceedings.

He has a wife and two kids. “Even if you want to detain me, detain me where I can see my kids,” Megwa said. “Even if you want to deport someone, they have a right to see their family.”

Megwa was on a hunger strike for nine days before stopping for health reasons.

The current strike is not the largest in the center’s history. The first one La Resistencia supported in 2014 involved over 1,200 detainees, said Villalpando, the organization’s leader.

While there isn’t data on how effective hunger strikes are at the detention center, Godoy, with the UW Center for Human Rights, said that hunger strikes are often the only way detainees can make their voices heard. She can’t recall a long-term improvement to conditions resulting from a hunger strike, but has heard of “modest gains,” like “chicken served at meals.”

Godoy called the official grievance process at the facility “ridiculously ineffective.” The UW Human Rights Center’s most recent report was titled “Calls to Nowhere,” because researchers found ICE does not follow up on calls to the sexual assault complaint hotline at the facility.

“Research has corroborated what we’ve long heard people say: ‘you file these grievances and they go nowhere,’” Godoy said.

Villalpando said hunger strikes are effective because they shed light on “a system intentionally designed to be hidden from public view.”

Legislation hits roadblocks

Washington’s Legislature passed a law in 2021 aimed at shutting down the Northwest Detention Center by 2025, but it is unenforceable due to a court decision from last year over a similar California law that sought to ban private prisons in the state.

“California cannot exert this level of control over the federal government’s detention operations,” a panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled.

Washington conceded after months of consideration that it, too, was bound by the ruling decision, The Seattle Times reported.

A state law approved this year was intended to give the state greater oversight of conditions in the facility, including through inspections by the state Department of Health. The GEO Group has sued the state to stop enforcement of that law.

The operators of the facility denied the Department of Health entry on Tuesday for an inspection, according to the agency.

Godoy says much of the responsibility for the facility’s conditions and existence lies with Congress.

Washington’s representatives have signed letters condemning the center’s conditions.

Two representatives, Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith, have introduced the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act to end “the inhumane conditions of detention centers” and protect the civil and human rights of immigrants. The bill’s 119 cosponsors in the Republican-controlled House are all Democrats. It’s been referred to the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.

Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, is one of six Democratic and Independent senators who have signed on as cosponsors to a related bill in the Senate. But it, too, has failed to gain traction.

Godoy said there is much more congressional lawmakers could do – such as demanding hearings and assisting with public records requests.

“In terms of actually delivering results, we don’t see a lot of movement,” she said.

In lieu of action by the government or The GEO Group, La Resistencia will continue holding rallies outside of the facility until the hunger strikes are over. “Our goal is to end detention centers,” Villalpando said, adding: “I don’t think there’s a way to make a cage more humane.”

FEATURED IMAGE: A ‘no trespassing’ sign on a fence outside the Northwest Detention Center. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)