What it's like inside Northwest Detention Center

Staff writerApril 6, 2014 

The Northwest Detention Center lobby buzzed with children and families waiting to visit detainees March 27 when a News Tribune reporter toured the facility on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

The mood was light, compared to the unrest that’s risen inside the immigration lockup in recent weeks as some detainees mounted a hunger strike to protest their living conditions.

A guard processing visitors joked with a woman waiting to go through security.

“She has black hair and a black shirt, with rhinestones aaaaall over it,” he said into his radio, so a coworker would recognize the woman when she moved to another part of the facility.

The woman laughed.

A different woman appeared to be leaving.

“Did you get your visit?” a guard asked her.

“Yeah,” she said. “Thank you for asking.”

Inside the complex, murals adorn the walls.

There are dolphins, a giant eagle in front of an American flag, a safari landscape and Mount Rainier, among others.

Detainees design and paint approved murals for $1 a day. Some detainees have complained about that wage, which is the same as for helping in the kitchen and laundry room.

Other detainees with experience in styling hair work in the center’s barbershop. Haircuts are given once a month. A poster helps detainees point out which cut they want.

Numbers on how many detainees have jobs inside the facility weren’t immediately available, but it’s not the majority, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Detainees’ spiritual needs are handled by one chaplain, regardless of religion. Services are held in a multi-purpose room.

The detention center’s medical center is outfitted for the basics. Someone with a broken arm or other serious injury would be taken to a hospital, detention center officials said.

But for some detainees, a visit to the medical center is the first time they’ve ever seen a dentist or doctor.

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