The private prison contractor that operates one of the nations largest immigration detention centers on Tacomas Tideflats has agreed to negotiate a long-neglected agreement with the City of Tacoma that would spell out public safety responsibilities should disaster ever strike the lock-down facility.
Discussions about a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between The GEO Group and the city kicked off during a Sept. 7 meeting that included Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan and Lowell Clark, warden of the Northwest Detention Center.
It was a very positive meeting, said Deputy Fire Chief Jolene Davis. All sides are committed to working on the MOU that you know is required by the Department of Homeland Security.
Meeting participants including federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials also discussed allowing city fire personnel to review the facilitys evacuation plan and conduct joint emergency preparedness training drills with the detention centers employees.
We want to make sure that we know what their evacuation plan is to ensure the safety of all people in that facility, Duggan said.
A second meeting is set for Wednesday, city officials said.
The latest talks between GEO and the city emerged after The News Tribune raised questions about the prison companys contractual requirements during reporting on Center of Detention, a special report about the Northwest Detention Center published in September.
Among other details, the report noted the facility was built on fill material prone to liquefaction during earthquakes and within an area susceptible to tsunami flooding and volcanic hazards, according to scientists.
A corporate spokesman for Florida-based GEO declined last month to directly respond to a reporters questions for the special report, instead issuing a general statement that the facility provides a safe and secure environment for its detainee population and staff.
Since opening with 500 beds in 2004, the detention center has expanded into a 1,575-bed facility with an average daily population of detainees that ranks it fourth-highest among hundreds of immigrant detention facilities nationwide.
Under federal contracts dating back eight years, GEO, the detention centers owner and operator, and its predecessor, the Correctional Services Corp., were supposed to have written agreements with appropriate state and local authorities that will allow the contractor to make requests for assistance in the event of any emergency incident that would adversely affect the community.
Such agreements are meant to clearly spell out the roles and responsibilities and potentially, any cost recovery protocols for them for any special assistance provided by local governments to the detention center during riots, catastrophes or other emergencies.
Records show that the city and CSC worked on draft agreements shortly before and after the detention center opened in 2004. But those agreements never were formalized, despite some Tacoma public safety officials assuring City Council members years ago that they would be.
After a reporter asked about the contractual obligation, an ICE spokesman told The News Tribune in August his agency was satisfied that GEO, which took ownership of the detention center in 2005, had sufficiently tried to meet the requirement.
Each year, The GEO Group sends an official correspondence to fulfill that contract obligation, spokesman Andrew Munoz said in an email. But so far, theyve done it without any success.
Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli and other city officials later said they knew of no such correspondences, and a public records request submitted by the newspaper turned up no such documents.
Munoz said in an email Friday that ICE officials are supportive of the current talks to address the issue.
ICE is pleased with this development as our top oversight concerns are ensuring the safety of the public, detainees and those who work at the detention center, he said.
On Friday, Assistant City Manager Tansy Hayward, who attended last months meeting, noted that the city recently sought to re-examine GEOs public safety and financial responsibilities to the city and to make sure we were appropriately responding.
The issue emerged as a budget-related topic earlier this year, after former Fire Chief Ron Stephens told council members his departments costs for responding to service calls to the detention center in 2011 totaled about $60,000.
City staff later examined potential cost-recovery ideas, finding that none could fairly be applied to the facility. They also noted that the detention center paid more than $1 million annually in property and business taxes.
Hayward said the citys current discussions with GEO focus on public safety, not cost recovery.
I think that will be part of the conversation, Hayward said. But at this point for us, its really about ensuring there are good plans for public safety in place. Its really clear The GEO Group shares that feeling and is committed to cooperating.
With the Fire Department nearly ready to launch operations of the Port Emergency Warning System, or PEWS, part of the discussions with GEO are focused on how the new system might benefit the detention center, fire officials said.
Paid by federal port security grants, PEWS will use a system of speakers positioned around the Port of Tacoma to sound sirens and voice instructions, warning the public about chemical spills, tsunamis or other hazards. Its meant primarily for people with unfettered movement, but fire officials believe the system also can benefit the lock-down detention center to some extent.
Its not the magic bullet that takes care of all of our concerns if we have some big lahar or some other disaster, Davis said. But its certainly a step in the right direction.
Local activist Tim Smith, who has raised public safety concerns about the detention center for eight years, welcomed news of the emerging talks.
This is long overdue, so Im very glad these discussions between GEO and the city are finally taking place, Smith said Friday. But I would hope that the city makes sure theres public input in this process. For us to be excluded at this time would be a serious mistake.
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542