The GEO Group wants us to think their Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington is humane and well-run. But the immigrants detained in this for-profit prison beg to differ.

At a contentious City Council meeting on April 25, GEO Group attorney Joan Mell sought to persuade a highly skeptical audience that the NWDC is the best detention center ever. The problem is, saying you’re the best detention center is a lot like saying you’ve got the best puddle of vomit. There’s no way that can possibly be a good thing

Yet she gamely tries.

“I have found they are very attentive and concerned for the safety and security of folks in the facility.”

Joan Mell then crisply and cheerily rattled off some factoids for why undocumented immigrants  detained in the Northwest Detention Center are so much better off here than elsewhere:

“Northwest Immigration Project: Best attorneys in the nation. Geo Facility on J. Street: Best facility in the nation. 9th Circuit [Court]: Best jurisdiction to hear these cases… 35 percent is the highest statistic in the nation of a positive outcome [non-deportation] for individuals. Folks here have protections because they have the best lawyers, they’re in the right location, and they have the right court system.”

You’ve got to admire her chutzpah. Yet 35 percent “positive outcomes” means 65 percent of those held in the facility will get torn away from their families, their friends, and their jobs forever…Or at least until we can elect a new president.

James Black, Vice President for the GEO Group’s Western region then took the stand and announced in a warm, reassuring baritone:

“We serve people who seek political asylum, and we serve immigrants who need timely resolution to their legal status in a humane, safe, and secure manner.”

Dozens of activists and neighbors who attended the meeting want the Northwest Detention Center gone…Or at least want the City to ban all possibility of future expansion. Yet James Black cruelly reminds us that imposing new regulations won’t stop Not-My-President Donald Trump from deporting people.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who comes across as sympathetic but pragmatic, also pointed out that as much as locals may hate the NWDC, families of detainees have often told her they’re grateful their loved ones are nearby. If the NWDC wasn’t here, people would get sent somewhere else like Louisiana or Texas. She also said the main issue here isn’t the detention center, it’s “bad federal policy.” Strangely, one of the big wigs from the GEO Group agreed with Strickland and said he doesn’t support current immigration policies either.

Phillip Miller from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also assured us that the ICE agents and GEO employees are friendly neighbors who live in the area and that the GEO Group is only mulling an expansion so they can offer more activities and services to their detainees. I wish I could believe him.

Plus, James Black adds, the Northwest Detention Center complies with all state and local requirements and the American Correctional Association has given them a 100 percent rating.


Alas, many of those present at the meeting fear that the real reason this expansion is being considered is because our “unified Republican government” plans to double down on the deportations.

Here’s a photo of the NWDC  from above. In March, the City Council voted through an interim measure to ban expansion, but still seeks public input for a future plan for prisons.

If the Northwest Detention Center’s so nice and well-run, why do inmates keep going on hunger strikes?

But all that doesn’t change the fact that the people detained have been going on hunger strikes to protest the poor treatment they receive. And here’s the cold, harsh reality of life in the Northwest Detention Center, according to the NWDC Resistance:

  • They’re required to work and only get paid $1.00 a day.
  • The meals consist of non-nutritious food and skimpy portions.
  • The commissary (store) rips them off with outrageous prices.
  • Hygiene products are in short supply and the detainees’ requests include “the ability to wash clothes with soap and water.”
  • They don’t get enough time to exercise and go outside.
  • Schoolwork, activities, and programs are in short supply for keeping prisoners occupied.
  • They don’t receive adequate medical attention and care.
  • The legal process for resolving the detainees’ immigration status takes far too long.

Here are the spartan rooms detainees sleep in:

The people held at the Northwest Detention Center also insist that things have gotten worse since Donald Trump was “elected” without anything close to the popular vote.  Latino Rebels states that now those working for $1 a day are not only underpaid, they’re underfed:

“Some have even been denied the $1/day payment, and have been given a bag of chips in exchange for several nights of waxing the prison’s floors,”

The NWDC Resistance adds:

“Detention conditions were already terrible under Obama, and from what we’re hearing, they’ve gotten even worse since Trump’s election.”

Meanwhile, some of those who got up to speak at the City Council meeting gave heart-wrenching testimonies

Melissa Taylor read a statement from her neighbor, who’s currently being detained, on various aspects of life at the NWDC. For starters, the commissary fleeces people who barely have any money in the first place.

“Our families put money in our accounts, and they charge them $7 to put money in our accounts. After this, they charge us triple to buy from the commissary. Here the company that has a contract with Geo is taxing our money that’s already been taxed multiple times. Our families work hard to earn money and most of them are here legally and follow the rules of the United States and the laws of this country. And those that are here illegally pay taxes but can’t receive anything in return.”

In addition, when inmates have requests or voice their concerns, the GEO Group and ICE keep passing the buck.

“Geo and ICE are always tossing the ball back and forth. If we have a complaint with GEO, they tell us to talk to ICE. When we talk to ICE, they tell us to talk to GEO.”

And sure, some detainees are from the area and their families and friends are nearby. But they might as well be on the moon.

“They claim they don’t want to separate the families of detainees, but visits are one hour long from a piece of glass. And those that are from out-of-state can’t see their families because video visits are only available in pods F1 and F2.”

She adds that the food has gotten worse and the portions have gotten smaller. Another speaker read a testimony that said every month for inspection:

“They grab a group to wax the floor and clean the walls, and are only given a single top ramen soup and a bag of chips.”

Furthermore, the medical conditions are as appalling as you likely suspect by now.

“It doesn’t matter how serious the problem is, the only thing they prescribe is that you drink a lot of water and you stretch…And they give Naproxyn for everything. When you get an appointment, the doctors say they can’t help you because there isn’t enough money in the budget.”

A man named Freddy from Casa Latina, a non-profit that seeks to provide immigrants with training and connect them with jobs, said he was mistreated while held at NWDC and charged $7.00 a minute just to call his loved ones. He pointed out that private prisons like the ones run by the Geo Group make millions of dollars from communities of color, and “don’t see them as people but as dollar signs on a spreadsheet.”

In addition, Karla Rixon from Indivisible Tacoma spoke briefly and delivered a letter in support of the NWDC Resistance with several hundred signatures she’d gathered from the community.

Here’s the bleak-looking cafeteria.

Prisons for profit are an abomination.

The GEO Group is a for-profit company that runs the immigration prison on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It’s one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the U.S. Their Northwest Detention Center  holds 1,575 souls, making it among the largest facilities of its kind in the country.

As with healthcare and education and other essential public services, prisons should never be run by the private sector. For starters, The GEO group’s CEO, George C. Zoley, gets paid a whopping $4,888,538 per year, not including stocks and other bonuses. What the hell does anyone do that could possibly be worth that much? Imagine all the healthy meals, activities, hygiene products, and medical supplies that would cover for detainees across the country.

Meanwhile, the highest-paid worker for the federal government (on the G-15 payscale) makes $102,646.00 – $133,444.00. There’s no way private companies are more competent or cost-effective with those kinds of numbers.

Second, as The District Sentinel points out, when the Obama administration said we should phase out private prison companies, the GEO Group’s stock price tanked. But Donald Trump “won” the election, the GEO Group’s stock price shot back up, and surpassed its previous value.

Then, when our Old Confederacy relic of an Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said he’d be cracking down on undocumented immigrants, even more, the stock price jumped from $47.87, from $46.98.

That’s unbelievably messed up.

The fact that the high level of fear and human suffering triggered by the Trump administration and our “unified Republican government” means bigger profits for investors is sick and twisted beyond redemption. If that’s what the “free market” is about, then to hell with the “free market.”

Back in 2000, Tacoma’s City Council approved the project despite the fact that it’s located on top of a toxic waste dump. That’s right. The Tide Flats along Commencement Bay is formerly an industrial zone and currently a SuperFund site. Several developments were nixed for that location because it wasn’t seen as safe. But as one meeting attendee pointed out, what’s unsafe for white people is just fine for brown people.

And now, many of my fellow Tacoma residents would like for Tacoma to be a sanctuary city like Seattle 30 miles north. Alas, the presence of a massive detention center makes it hard to follow suit. Plus, although Tacoma employs many of the practices of sanctuary cities, King 5 reports the ever-pragmatic Mayor Marilyn Strickland urged the City Council not to do it.

“I applaud cities that don’t need federal funding, but Tacoma is not a tax rich city,” Strickland wrote in a Twitter message, “And we depend on federal funds for transit, social services and economic development that often helps under-served communities.”

Despite not having the label, Tacoma offers public and social services to all residents no matter their immigration status, and police don’t ask about immigration status.

To watch a video of Tacoma’s April 25th City Council meeting click here (this link goes straight to the public hearing on NWDC part of the meeting). I didn’t include the video here because it (ARGH!) auto plays and I hate auto play.

I took only cursory notes at the meeting and the video was difficult to transcribe from. If I’ve gotten anyone’s names or quotes wrong, please let me know via my Contact Form.

Featured image: cc 2009 Seattle Globalist via Flickr.