U.S. Rep Adam Smith speaks at a press conference for the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. Photo courtesy Smith’s office

U.S. Rep Adam Smith speaks at a press conference for the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. Photo courtesy Smith’s office

An End to Private Prisons? Washington Reps Introduce Act to Phase Out Immigration Detention

“Our broken immigration system … is a profit-making enterprise of large, private corporations.”

Inspired in part by the hunger strikes over the years at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a privately-run detention facility for undocumented immigrants, U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal announced Tuesday a piece of federal legislation that could, theoretically, do away with the NWDC altogether.

The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2017, co-sponsored by Smith, Jayapal, and 39 other members of the House so far, would first establish enforceable federal standards for such facilities across the country, including requirements that detainees be fed adequately, offered adequate medical care, and have recourse if they have complaints about their living conditions. (These are issues that NWDC detainees often brought up when on hunger strike).

The act would also repeal mandatory detention for immigrants, requiring probable cause for keeping an undocumented person—rarely a convicted criminal—in jail or detention while they’re undergoing civil proceedings. Currently, immigrants can be held for weeks, months, or even years while waiting on a brief hearing from a judge. And it would, ultimately, phase out the use of privately-run immigration detention centers entirely.

The immigration detention system, as it stands, “is just wrong,” said Jayapal at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, flanked by representatives from a handful of national advocacy organizations including the ACLU and the National Immigration Justice Center. “It is morally wrong, and it is economically wrong.” Approximately 38,000 men, women and children are detained every day, she said, costing taxpayers $2 billion a day, which could jump to $3.2 billion if Congress authorizes an increase in the detention bed quota. “Our broken immigration system, let’s be clear,” she said, “is a profit-making enterprise of large, private corporations.”

One goal of the proposed legislation, Smith explained, is simply to set standards for how people are treated in private facilities right now. “The detention facility like the one in my district, in the Tacoma tideflats, does not have any federally mandated regulation on how the detainees are to be treated, in terms of food, in terms of work schedule, in terms of when they can be put into isolation,” he said. All of that, he said, is up to the discretion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In 2011, ICE did revise its detention standards in order to “improve medical and mental health services” and “improve the process for reporting and responding to complaints,” among other things. Smith and other speakers on Tuesday emphasized a lack of transparency and accountability to such standards, however. U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) told a story of a visit to a facility in Texas where an infant’s back was covered in sores, but her mother was told the child should just “drink water.” Part of the bill would require unannounced inspections of these facilities.

Humane living conditions, then, are paramount. But the next big goal of the bill, Smith said, is to get rid of private prisons, period. “We think all privately-run detention and prison facilities should be eliminated because the for-profit motive is part of the problem,” he said. “Part of the reason the food is so awful is because [the companies] are trying to save money. Part of the reason they don’t pay detainees what they should pay them for the work that they have them do is, again, because they are trying to save money.” (Last month, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the nation and the operator of the NWDC, for paying detainees $1 a day and thus violating Washington state minimum wage laws.)

Smith, in his statement, also pointed to the fact that in August 2016, the Obama Administration announced its plans to gradually phase out the use of privately-run federal prisons. In February, the Trump Administration reversed that order. The Obama Administration order, however, focused on federal prisons contracted out by the Bureau of Prisons, not immigration detention centers contracted out by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. In December 2016, a special report by a subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) found that, for fiscal and capacity reasons, private companies should continue to run immigration detention centers. Still, of the 23 members of the HSAC, 17 disagreed with that recommendation, concurring that “a measured but deliberate shift away from the private prison model is warranted.”

“GEO has a long history of providing culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments … as confirmed in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council report in 2016 on privately operated ICE facilities,” according to a statement provided by GEO Group. “As a matter of long-standing policy, GEO does not take a position on or advocate for or against any immigration policies—such as the basis for an individual’s detention or the length of detention—but we welcome the opportunity to meet with lawmakers and other stakeholders to dispel the myths about our company and discuss how we partner with the federal government to provide high-quality services and advance best practices.”

If enacted as written, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would, from the day of its enactment, prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from entering into or extending any contract with a private prison company. DHS would also be required to terminate any such contract it had within three years of the law’s passage. NWDC renewed GEO Group’s contract in 2015 through 2025. If this act passes, therefore, and if the NWDC still exists three years afterward, at that point the NWDC will be owned and operated by DHS, not GEO Group.

Daniel, a Chicago-based medical student from Nigeria who spoke on Tuesday, said he won his asylum case in August, which was a relief; but there was no reason he should have been detained for five months, with limited communication with his family and attorneys, inadequate food, and dangerously inadequate medical care while that civil proceeding was ongoing. “I spent my days doing nothing but crying,” he said. “I never imagined in my life I’d be in a jail facility. All my life, I’ve never even been to a police station.” He became critically ill while in detention, he said, and, he, too, was offered water instead of medical treatment. “I asked to see a physician but I was denied. The response to me was I should drink more water,” he said.

It is time, Jayapal said, “to overhaul the system” and create alternatives to this kind of detention. “How do we restore the authority of oversight, transparency, and accountability to the Department of Homeland Security again, instead of to private prisons who benefit from this? [We need] to think of this system as it was intended to be: A civil system intended to hold people for short periods of time. That is no longer what it is.”

The proposed legislation “gives me hope,” Daniel said, “that this government can find a way to stop the inhumane treatment” of people in detention. “I ask that our country and our country’s leaders remember that all human beings have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity, regardless of what the cost might be.”

sbernard@seattleweekly.com

This post has been updated to clarify the Obama Administration’s order to phase out privately-run federal prisons and to include a statement from GEO Group.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

A landslide in December 2019 created a crack in this Fall City road, allowing for a one lane entry and exit. Courtesy of King County Road Services
WA Legislature grapples with funding roads, bridges

Roads and bridges repair programs in King County are underfunded, and state… Continue reading

Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance
Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance

Nonprofits, activists are expecting greater need as workers are laid off.

File photo
Proposed bill aims to trade handcuffs for help when it comes to drug use

Supreme Court decision to strike down drug possesion law leaves oppurtunity to shift paradigm

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo
House passes bill to increase financial reporting, transparency by healthcare providers

Bill’s prime sponsor says it will help address healthcare equity and affordability.

File photo
Freshwater variety of kokanee salmon from Lake Sammamish. File photo
Encouraging numbers for kokanee salmon spawn count

Lake Sammamish kokanee aren’t out of the woods by any stretch, but… Continue reading

In this file photo, Tayshon Cottrell dons his graduation cap and gown, along with a face mask reading: “Wear it! Save America” at Todd Beamer High School’s virtual graduation walk recording on May 20, 2020, in Federal Way. Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing
Law gives Washington high school seniors leeway to graduate

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that can waive some requirements for students who were on track before the pandemic.

File photo
Study shows Washingtonians exceeded ‘heavy drinking’ threshold in 2020

The survey suggests Washingtonians drank more than 17 alcoholic beverages a week on average.

Mercer Island School District first-graders returned to in-person classes on Jan. 19, 2021. Here, Northwood Elementary School students head into the building. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Island School District
Governor: Educators are now eligible for coronavirus vaccine

“This should give educators more confidence,” Jay Inslee said. Other frontline workers could soon be next.

Most Read