Why were ICE detainees put in solitary?

Their supporters say it was punishment for hunger strike; officials at center say it was to stop intimidation

Staff writerApril 6, 2014 

Several detainees who talked to The News Tribune recently about concerns with Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center were among about 20 people placed in isolation as punishment related to a hunger strike there, supporters and family members said last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Andrew Munoz said several people were separated from the general population at the immigration lockup on the Tideflats.

The move came “after the agency received multiple complaints from detainees and immigration attorneys that some individuals were intimidating other detainees into participating in protests,” Munoz said. “While ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference, when these expressions infringe on the civil rights of others, ICE has an obligation to act.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and others sued last week to prevent retaliation against those detainees. ACLU lawyers told The Associated Press the detainees were moved back into the general population Friday after six days in isolation.

The News Tribune spoke to a number of the detainees last month, some by phone and one in person, about complaints they have with their living conditions, treatment at the center, and broader issues about deportation and legal matters.

The center is run under contract by The GEO Group, a private company. The facility houses about 1,300 people, most waiting either for a hearing in U.S. Immigration Court or for deportation to their native land.

GEO declined The News Tribune’s request to interview the warden of the Northwest Detention Center, but the company did release a statement.

“GEO’s immigration facilities, including the Northwest Detention Center, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” the statement said.

A News Tribune reporter visited the center March 27 for a tour and to interview three detainees.

Only one, Ramon Mendoza, was made available.

One of the others attempted suicide days before the scheduled visit and presumably was in the hospital. GEO officials declined to say why the third wasn’t available, citing privacy reasons. That man, Ericson Gonzales, is a plaintiff in the ACLU legal action.

Supporters said Thursday that Mendoza was one of the detainees placed in solitary confinement in late March after being convicted of charges related to the hunger strike.

Munoz said he could not discuss specific detainees unless they signed a waiver.

Mendoza is a soft-spoken man of short stature.

On the day of the interview, he wore a blue uniform, which signifies his record is the least violent of the three levels of detainees at the center.

Speaking in Spanish, the Kent carpenter and father of three said he has been detained for about six months.

Hundreds of detainees launched the hunger strike March 7 as a way to bring attention to the plight of detainees, he said.

He was one of the few who refused to eat long enough to be put under medical observation. Officials took his temperature, blood pressure and drew blood, Mendoza said.

Mendoza said he eventually started eating so he could be put back with the general population because he wanted to tell the others what was happening and to help start a second wave of the strike. That action started March 24, supporters said.

As of Tuesday, no detainees were in medical isolation related to not eating.

They had the “courage to do it again,” Mendoza said.

He said detainees initially organized the strike by passing secret notes to one another, a practice the guards caught on to.

One of the chief complaints of the detainees who spoke to The News Tribune is the quality of the food.

Rice, beans and potatoes are staples detainees say they get tired of.

“The food is very bad,” Mendoza said. “Practically the same” every day.

Lunch on March 27 was corn bread, margarine, beans, taco meat and salsa.

Detainees with special nutritional requirements got oranges and juice packets with their meals. The facility offers vegetarian and kosher meals.

Some detainees said the food is occasionally rotten and that they’d found stones in the beans.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department inspects the facility.

Rachel Knight, who oversees the food and community safety program for the Health Department, said food going bad at the detention center is unlikely.

“We’d find it,” Knight said.

There’s such a high turnover in their kitchen, there really isn’t an opportunity for anything to rot, she said.

“As far as stones in the beans, every once in a while, that may happen,” Knight added.

Sometimes, no matter what the facility, large bags of beans have stones in them, and one slips through the sifting process, she said. Other places, such as restaurants, have gotten similar complaints, and if the agency gets one, it follows up, Knight said.

Detainees also complained to The News Tribune that not enough guards speak Spanish.

Mendoza said he thinks no more than 25 percent of the guards speak his native tongue.

It’s not so bad for him, he said. He picks up enough English to get by.

But he said it’s harder for detainees who speak no English when they don’t understand the directions they’re supposed to follow.

GEO declined to say how many Spanish-speaking guards it employs in Tacoma.

Hunger striker Jose Negrete Mendoza called The News Tribune last month to discuss his complaints. Chief among them was the size of the detention center’s recreation yard.

Recently constructed dorms now occupy a portion of what used to be a bigger outdoor space, Negrete said.

GEO declined to say how big the rec yard was before, or what it looked like, saying in a statement only that the detention center hasn’t been expanded for five years.

“They took the yard,” Negrete said. “We have a little concrete box.”

The recreation area viewed by The News Tribune during its March 27 tour was big enough to house half a basketball court. The area was covered and had one hoop underneath barred, open-air windows.

“No sunlight,” Negrete said.

His wife, Veronica Negrete, said Thursday that her husband was one of the detainees placed in solitary confinement.

He called her Wednesday night to say that he wouldn’t be allowed to use the phone again until April 15. The father of six said he and others were taken out of their rooms and handcuffed after someone else told detainees “don’t eat, don’t eat, don’t eat,” when meals were brought in recently, Veronica Negrete said.

The pods where detainees live and eat at the center are large rooms with showers, TVs and telephones. Cafeteria-style tables fill the bottom level, and an upper balcony is lined with doors to individual rooms.

Negrete and others said Santos Peter Murillo tried to hang himself from one of the balconies March 24.

ICE reported that a “medical incident” occurred on that day but did not identify Murillo by name.

His sister Zuamy Murillo, who lives near Quincy, Wash., said Santos Murillo had family troubles and was upset that he hadn’t been able to communicate with his son, who turns 9 in August, for a year.

“He also told me that the place there was not the greatest,” she said.

Zuamy Murillo said her brother refused treatment for his injuries until officials let him call her. He did so on March 26 and had her connect The News Tribune to the call.

He left a message at the newspaper that said, in part, “I was just trying to make our voices heard. I’m going through something.”

His sister said he’s been sent to a detention facility in San Diego that officials told him has better psychiatric treatment.

He called The News Tribune from San Diego on Thursday night.

Santos Murillo said he left a letter before his suicide attempt that talked about the struggles of the detainees. The note also included complaints about GEO, he said.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268
alexis.krell@thenewstribune.com
thenewstribune.com/crime-news
@amkrell

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of detainees under medical observation. No detainees were under medical observation Tuesday related to a hunger strike at the center.

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