Politics & Government

Public hearing draws opposition to Northwest Detention Center

More than a dozen protesters gather Tuesday outside the Tacoma municipal building before a public hearing on the city’s interim regulations for correctional facilities.
More than a dozen protesters gather Tuesday outside the Tacoma municipal building before a public hearing on the city’s interim regulations for correctional facilities. cruud@thenewstribune.com

The overwhelming response from people who came to air their thoughts on Tacoma’s interim regulations for correctional facilities was clear: They don’t want an immigration detention center in this city.

Not only Tacomans showed up to speak against the Northwest Detention Center’s very existence, or any potential future expansion. People from Seattle, Vashon Island and other places spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing, which was required after the council passed an emergency ordinance last month that prohibits private correctional facilities and severely limits where public facilities — like the Pierce County Jail and Remann Hall, the juvenile detention center — can be located.

Several representatives of The Geo Group, the company that runs the Northwest Detention Center, also spoke, defending conditions at the jail and its record of compliance.

But the majority of speakers who packed council chambers were those who approved of the City Council’s interim rule to limit possible expansion of the Northwest Detention Center, and wanted the city to take it even further.

“I understand there are things you won’t be able to do, but today I ask, by putting a permanent ban on any expansions, you send a message to the executives at Geo Group that we will refuse to let them use our … tax dollars to dehumanize our communities,” said Fredi Dubon, who said he spent time as a detainee and was treated poorly. “We want our tax dollars to feed the hungry, house the homeless and help the poor, not to pay for walls, wars or prisons.”

The privately run facility, built on the Tideflats in 2004, and the two other jail facilities in the city are all grandfathered in, meaning the interim rule passed by the council wouldn’t shut them down, but under the ordinance passed in March, the Northwest Detention Center wouldn’t be able to expand or add more detainees. The facility can hold about 1,575 detainees now.

“Now we can talk about the detention center and say shut it down, don’t expand it. … But the structural problem in all of this is bad federal policy — there is a 30,000 bed minimum every night for detainees,” said Mayor Marilyn Strickland before the public hearing began.

“Let’s say hypothetically we got to a point where we shut this detention center down — it doesn’t change the federal policy of arresting people, so if they don’t end up here in Tacoma, they could end up in California or Texas.”

Strickland and other members of the City Council have been vocal about their discomfort with having an immigration detention center within Tacoma’s borders. But it’s a complicated issue, council members said Tuesday: Because of federal policy, there are still going to be arrests of immigrants, and the people who are arrested have to go somewhere.

If this facility didn’t exist, those people could be moved to a different state away from their families, Strickland and Geo Group representatives pointed out.

“Imposing regulations on The Geo Group will not change who ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detains,” said James Black, vice president of the western region for the company. “I am focused on providing high quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure and humane environment for the people who are in the custody and care of federal immigration authorities.”

Council members said that while they doubt the current Tacoma City Council would have voted to approve a detention center for the Tideflats as the council of 2000 did, they admitted there’s little chance of it closing in the near future.

The mayor and Councilman Marty Campbell, who brought forward the resolution in March, also noted what they called the hypocrisy of allowing detainees to be housed in the Port of Tacoma, when industrial and business interests have consistently pushed back on allowing housing to encroach on the Tideflats.

“It seems like the Port of Tacoma is an odd place to have a place like this, because we’ve pushed back against building condominiums down there because we’ve said it’s not a place for residents,” Campbell said Tuesday night, “and then we have a facility like this.”

Ursula Mehl, who spoke during the public hearing, agreed.

“I don’t understand why it’s not safe to have housing for white people down there, but it’s safe to cage brown people down there,” she said, to applause.

According to an immigrant rights group, detainees began another hunger strike at the facility Tuesday, but an attorney from Geo Group disputed that report. Outside the Tacoma municipal building before the council meeting, more than a dozen people chanted and carried signs, protesting the facility’s existence in Tacoma.

Next, the City Council will have to decide in May if it wants to keep, rescind or modify its interim regulations.

City staff members have recommended modifying the rule to allow private and public correctional facilities in Tacoma, but with a conditional use permit. They also recommended clarifying in the rule that any expansions or modifications to existing correctional facilities that would increase the inmate capacity would also require a conditional use permit.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud