Court blocks state inspections of federal immigration facility in Tacoma

A “no trespassing” sign outside of Northwest ICE Processing Center, also known as Northwest Detention Center. (Courtesy of Grace Deng / Washington State Standard)

State health and workplace inspections of a federal, privately-run immigration facility in Tacoma won’t happen anytime soon despite numerous complaints of detainee mistreatment.

A federal judge on Friday issued an order that will temporarily block inspections at the Northwest ICE Processing Center. The facility’s operator, Florida-based GEO Group, requested this preliminary injunction as part of a lawsuit filed last year.

The company is challenging a 2023 law meant to bring more state oversight to private detention facilities in Washington. The Tacoma site is the only facility of this kind in the state.

Inspectors from the Washington Department of Health and Labor & Industries were repeatedly denied access to the facility after attempting to enter under House Bill 1470. GEO said it denied them entry at the direction of officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The two state agencies lodged lawsuits of their own against GEO, trying to gain access to conduct inspections.

GEO’s suit, filed last July, argues HB 1470 is unconstitutional because of how the state wants to regulate activity carried out by a federal contractor.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle said the law discriminates against GEO as the only company operating a private detention facility in Washington and subjects GEO to “substantial economic burdens.”

The ruling notes that the law would open the door for detainees to seek damages and for the state to seek penalties for violations of HB 1470.

A key part of the law would set new standards for the confinement of detainees at the facility, banning solitary confinement, requiring immediate action on sexual violence complaints, and guaranteeing access to mental health evaluations, phone calls, the internet, and natural light.

Settle dismissed GEO’s arguments against this section. The judge noted it only applies to private detention facilities operating with a contract in effect before Jan. 1, 2023. GEO’s contract with ICE began in 2021 and does not expire until September 2025. Given this, Settle said the court is “unable to discern” whether this part of the law will ever be enforced against GEO.

The judge urged GEO and the state “to consult and agree on a resolution to this case in light of” Friday’s order.

Northwest ICE Processing Center is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country, with a capacity for about 1,575 people. From mid-2021 to 2022, the facility had an average population of 374 detainees, according to a May 2023 report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Department of Health officials attempted to enter the facility after receiving over 300 complaints from detainees, including complaints over food containing “foreign objects” such as burned plastic, metal string, rope and splinters.” Other allegations include insufficient food, dismissal of medical needs and misuse of solitary confinement.

Labor & Industries officials seeking to inspect detainee worker conditions were also turned away, despite procuring a warrant from Pierce County Superior Court.

The Department of Health said the agency did not have a comment at the time of publication. A spokesperson for Labor & Industries said its “lawsuit seeking access to the site continues to move forward.”

GEO said they were “pleased by the Court’s ruling and are committed to providing the federal government with contracted secure residential care services in accordance with all applicable federal standards.”

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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