Migrants describe hunger and solitary confinement at for-profit detention center

(CNN)The 40-year-old mother found herself in solitary confinement, locked in a cell behind a steel door for 23 hours a day, according to her legal filing and attorney.The woman, identified in court documents only by the initials R.M., was taken into custody in May while crossing the border illegally to seek asylum. She was separated from her teenage daughter. Now, she’s being held at a privately run immigrant detention facility — effectively, a prison — known as the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. The facility, which US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said held 1,495 detainees as of June 30, sits within a toxic sludge field and EPA Superfund site where residential construction has been barred. It has been the target of more than a dozen hunger strikes in recent years, each involving from a dozen to hundreds of detainees, over complaints of inadequate food and medical care, among other issues. Its operator, Florida-based The GEO Group, is fighting two lawsuits in Washington over alleged labor-law violations for a dollar-a-day migrant detainee work program it calls voluntary. And the center has in recent years faced one of the highest number of complaints about alleged physical and sexual assaults against detainees of any facility of its kind in the nation, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement data obtained through public records requests by the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants. GEO Group declined CNN’s requests for an interview. In emailed responses, spokesman Pablo Paez defended the company’s record in detaining immigrants and said it complies with “performance-based standards set by the Federal government” and accreditation guidelines. “Our employees are proud of our record in managing the Tacoma ICE Processing Center with high-quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure, and humane environment,” Paez said. “Members of our team strive to treat all of those entrusted to our care with compassion, dignity, and respect.”

The Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement strategy has been a financial boon for GEO Group, which along with its affiliates contributed more than half a million dollars to then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and his inaugural committee, according to Federal Election Commission data.
And GEO Group is not alone. The private-prison industry as a whole is benefiting from Trump’s border policies. But those lucrative business opportunities are also drawing increased public and legal scrutiny to a system that, advocates say, treats detainees cruelly. And, thanks to the hunger strikes and a grass-roots protest campaign, the public spotlight is now falling on the Northwest Detention Center.

An asylum-seeker in quarantine

The detention center opened in 2004. In 2008, a report by the Seattle University School of Law and human rights group OneAmerica, based on dozens of interviews with detainees, alleged frequent misconduct by guards, including physical and verbal abuse and sexual harassment. It described outbreaks of food poisoning, including one in 2007 that sickened more than 300 people; it said detainees often had to wait as long as two weeks to receive medical care; it detailed servings of food so paltry that 80% of detainees said they were hungry after every meal. It also described the food as sometimes rotten or bug-infested. One man who weighed 190 pounds when he entered the center lost 50 pounds over two years in detention, the report said. ICE, at the time, disputed the report. A spokeswoman told the Seattle Times it was “filled with inaccuracies and vague allegations.” The center has been subject to more complaints alleging sexual and physical assaults against detainees than all but three of the more than 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities around the country, according to a review of ICE data from 2012 through 2016, by nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants. And for four years, detainees there have engaged in one hunger strike after another, despite what they describe as ongoing retaliation by GEO Group and ICE.