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Conditions at the NWDC: Sanitation of Food & Laundry

Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo by Llisole from Noun Project
Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo by Llisole from Noun Project

March 27, 2020

This report is part of a series regarding Human Rights Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, based on ongoing research efforts and released to highlight initial findings in the urgent context of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Background, Methodology, and Human Rights Standards
Sanitation of Food and Laundry
Allegations of Medical Neglect
Use of Solitary Confinement
COVID-19 and Health Standards
Reporting of Sexual Assault and Abuse

← Previous section: Background, Methodology and Human Rights Standards

Sanitation: Spoiled Food and Dirty Laundry

UWCHR’s review of 3240 pages of written grievances filed by people detained at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC, officially named “Northwest ICE Processing Center”) from 2012 to 2018,[1] and 101 complaints about conditions at NWDC submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) from 2014 through 2019, surfaced complaints about sanitation at the NWDC, principally in the laundry and kitchen facilities. Detained people repeatedly reported that food was either spoiled or uncooked, sometimes infested with worms. They also noted that clothing was washed improperly, leaving them forced to wear clothes that smelled bad or were stained, including underwear. Independent investigations by the DHS Office of the Inspector General documented precisely these concerns in other detention centers.

Furthermore, responses by staff reviewing grievances—a combination of ICE and GEO officers, though on individual grievance forms it is not always clear which institution is issuing the response—show that these concerns are often dismissed by the facility, which either deems them “not a grievance” or suggests the detained person must approach the other institution (ICE or GEO) for resolution. While concerns about being forced to wear another person’s dirty underwear or eat food containing maggots are clear violations of detained peoples’ rights to conditions of confinement that respect their human dignity, they also suggest a systematic disregard for the public health implications of detention—a concern that becomes all the more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to international human rights standards for detention, “Every prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”[2]

Among grievances filed by people detained at NWDC, many revolve around the sanitation[3] of the food provided. For example:

  • A detained Honduran wrote on February 25, 2015, “I ask that you please investigate the food, since we’ve reported that the beans that are served here have worms in them. This has been reported to GEO and they don’t do anything about it, putting our health at risk.” In response, the Food Service Manager wrote, “We cannot take beans off the menu [as] this is part of your daily caloric intake.” No mention was made of the presence of worms.
  • On July 3, 2015, a detained Salvadoran wrote, “I want to denounce the GIO [sic] company for treating us worse than dogs with this food they’re giving us! They only give us food that is in a state of decomposition, and always give the same beans and boiled cabbage! And when they give meat! It’s spoiled meat already in a state of decomposition! People don’t want to complain because they’re afraid it will affect their pending immigration cases! I think that this company GIO [sic] is infringing on our dignity by treating us in this way!” The facility responded, “A nutritional analysis has been completed to ensure adherence to the nationally recommended allowance for basic nutrition. The menus are based on the current Dietary Reference Intakes established by the United States Department of Agriculture. The menus provide adequate nutrition including caloric intake and vitamin/mineral requirements.”
  • On September 3, 2015, a detained Mexican reported that some other detained people had been served raw hotdogs and that when those working in the kitchen complained, the chef responded, “If you’re hungry, eat, that’s all you’re going to get.” The response from the facility was, “THIS IS NOT AN ICE GRIEVANCE.”
  • On September 13, 2015, an detained Iraqi reported that the salad he was provided was “always no good” and that he had complained both to officers in his pod who were “tired of calling the kitchen all the time,” and had suggested he file a grievance to ICE. The GEO Food Service Director responded, “I’ll keep an eye on this.”
  • On July 7, 2016, a detained person wrote, “I am officially refusing to eat until your kitchen staff start treating me as a human being and not some kind of caged animal deservent [sic] of partially cooked and uncooked meals.” The facility’s response, noted on the form, was simply, “Not a grievance.”

While it is impossible for UWCHR to corroborate these individual grievances, our review of the thousands of pages of grievance forms provided to us under FOIA reveal that the same complaints repeatedly surface over the course of multiple years.[4] They are also reflected in other expressions of discontent beyond these grievance forms. For example, UWCHR researchers reviewed an ICE Significant Incident Report from December 13, 2017, describing a Cuban asylum seeker who had chosen to go on hunger strike in protest over the food in NWDC.

Food quality has been consistently denounced by hunger strikers, including during group hunger strikes in March 2014 and August 2017. People detained at NWDC voiced similar concerns to reporters from CNN in 2018.[5] And the 2008 report “Voices from Detention” prepared by OneAmerica and the Seattle University School of Law[6] noted that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department concluded a food poisoning outbreak in August 2007 had stemmed from inadequate food preparation.

Because the NWDC holds a Food Establishment Permit from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD), the TPCHD has some limited oversight functions at the NWDC. TPCHD inspectors conduct unannounced independent inspections of the facility’s kitchen three times per year. TPCHD reported to UWCHR that its inspectors have never been turned away,[7] and recent inspections have not found evidence of spoiled food in the kitchen.[8]

In addition, the TPCHD has the authority to conduct investigations in response to specific complaints received about food at the facility, although these investigations are often limited to a phone call to the facility. For example, in September and October 2019 TPCHD received multiple complaints about rotten food and maggots in the food at NWDC. Because these complaints were received very shortly after the facility had passed an inspection (on September 4, 2019), the inspector chose to make a follow-up phone call to the facility management to investigate these allegations. The next inspection was scheduled for early December 2019, and no maggots or spoiled food were detected at that time.[9]


According to international human rights standards for detention, “All clothing shall be clean and kept in proper condition. Underclothing shall be changed and washed as often as necessary for the maintenance of hygiene.”[10]

Like complaints about food, concerns about unclean laundry surface in both grievance reports and other expressions of discontent among people in detention.

Examples from grievance forms obtained by UWCHR include the following:

  • On April 12, 2015, a detained Guatemalan complained that his clothes were not being washed despite being dirty.
  • A detained person from Kazakhstan reported on August 8, 2015, “I have been told by people who work there that our white clothes goes into the same machine with dirty mops, wool blankets and red and yellow clothes. Also, 3 out of 5 machines not using soap at all! That explains the grey color of my whites.” The facility responded, “Please resubmit your grievance to “grievance- GEO”. By the way, looking at your grievance log, this is the second grievance on the subject of laundry.”
  • On August 9, 2015, a detained person from Kazakhstan (possibly the same one as above) reported that, “When we sent our dirty clothes to wash them they came back even dirtier than before and smell like body odor. Can you please look into it and fix this problem. Because it’s very unhealthy.” The facility responded, “I have reviewed the laundry process as well as observed that all washing machines are getting the appropriate quantity of soap in the machines.”
  • On August 9, 2015, a detained Russian wrote that, “The facility’s laundry does a horrible job and my… clothes come back brown-reddish color and smell[ing] rotten.” The response received was, “You need to file a grievance with the GEO laundry staff; as I explained before, ICE does not manage the daily operations of the facility, including the laundry room.”
  • A detained Honduran reported on August 9, 2015 that, “Somebody that works in the laundry was telling me that the people in the laundry when they wash your clothes, they put the mops that they mop the floor with in there with our clothes and idk if you could help us out and tell them to not do that because that’s really unsanitary how are clothes washed with the mops used to clean the dirty floors.” The facility response was “I have talked to the laundry officer and they have not mixed or washed mop heads with the clothes.”
  • A detained person from the United Kingdom submitted a grievance on October 4, 2016 asking, “Why are we not issued brand new panties? I keep requesting panties and they keep bringing old yellow stained disgusting panties…that is very unsanitary. Some are even blood stained… can we please get issued new panties??”
  • On October 4, 2016, a detained Cambodian reported, “Every time I put in a request in exchange for new panties, I receive yellow or brown used panties. This has been an ongoing thing. It is disgusting and unsanitary. It is a health issue. I don’t know if the last owner of those panties has hep c or any other diseases. I am concern and I hope we can resolve this issue. Thank you.” The response was, “This is not an ICE issue. You have to send a request to GEO.”
  • A detained person from the Philippines wrote, on October 4, 2016, “I am writing this grievance letter concerning the womens clothing and underwear issues…I have just arrived yesterday and was not happy about the clothing and linen that was provided to me…especially the underwear. I was given some filthy underwear that I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to keep.” The response was “Not a grievance.”

While the grievances about laundry cited above cluster around certain dates, the fact that such complaints have been repeatedly raised over the course of years in multiple fora suggests that these are not isolated incidents. Concerns about unclean laundry were raised by hunger strikers in March 2014 and August 2017, appear in grievances filed in 2015 and 2016, and are documented in nationwide reporting on conditions of immigrant detention.[11] Because GEO, as a private company, is not subject to the requirements of FOIA, and facility management declined our request to be interviewed, it is impossible for UWCHR to ascertain what steps, if any, may have been undertaken to address this concern, but the fact that the same complaint surfaces again and again would suggest any responses have been insufficient.


For years, people detained at the NWDC have complained of unhygienic practices in the kitchen and laundry facilities. Unfortunately, there is no indication that these practices have changed, despite repeated complaints raised by people in detention, their attorneys, DHS’ own researchers, and the general public. Furthermore, the surfacing of similar problems at facilities in other states suggests that such problems are endemic in the detention-for-profit model under which the facility operates. To the extent that GEO, ICE, and local public health agencies have responded to these complaints, their efforts do not appear to have resolved the problem of unsanitary practices.

The specific practices documented in detained people’s grievances and the OIG’s investigative reports contradict ICE’s guidelines under the PBNDS 2011.[12] Yet as is clear from ICE’s responses to the complaints cited above, it is evident from the grievance forms themselves that the agency routinely dismisses complaints as either “not a grievance” at all, or an issue that should be addressed by GEO management rather than ICE itself. This effectively “passes the buck” to a private company whose actions are almost entirely exempt from regulation or oversight.

Concerns about COVID-19 at the NWDC typically focus on the facility’s need to ensure the isolation and treatment of those who may have contracted the virus, rather than general sanitation practices. ICE has provided some guidelines on COVID-19 management, recommending specific practices of isolation and control.[13] Yet the apparently systematic failure to address the everyday sanitation challenges involved in maintaining a clean kitchen or ensuring a functioning laundry at the NWDC suggest a few conclusions that are particularly sobering in light of urgent public health concerns:

  1. ICE’s publication of detailed standards, monitored only through an internal system that has been widely denounced as meaningless, is insufficient to ensure compliance with the agency’s own standards for basic sanitation.
  2. The oversight exercised by public health authorities in Tacoma and Pierce County is far too limited to amount to any meaningful guarantee of health or safety for those confined at the NWDC.
  3. The repeated requests by Washington state’s governor and Congressional delegation for urgent inspections of health and safety conditions at the NWDC have not led to any appreciable response.

Next section: Allegations of Medical Neglect →



[1] Under FOIA, in March 2018 UWCHR requested “copy of all documentation related to grievances, formal or informal, and their resolution, at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, from January 1, 2012 to March 10, 2018.” Under the PBNDS 2011 standards, each facility is expected to maintain a grievance log, described on page 416 of the standards, into which information about the resolution of informal grievances and the processing of formal (written) grievances should be entered. Pursuant to litigation against DHS, UWCHR has received digital copies of the NWDC’s grievance logs, in addition to (as of March 20, 2020) 3240 pages of an estimated 4000 pages total of grievances filed by people detained in the facility from 2012 to 2018.

[2] The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules), Rule 22, paragraph 1.

[3] Individuals in detention also file frequent complaints about the food’s quantity and quality; we have omitted these from this section in order to focus on sanitation specifically. For example, on July 29, 2016, a detained Mexican wrote, “I just ate dinner and I am still hungry. The rice and beans are not enough. If keeping me hungry is a strategy to make me give up my right to see an immigration judge or deport me forever… if not, give me enough rice and beans in my diet.” Others complained about the need to consistently supplement insufficient offerings with purchases of ramen soup from commissary, or alleged that poor quality food was causing them gastrointestinal problems.

[4] Because we are receiving grievance forms in a series of installments from ICE, we have not yet been able to review the full collection of grievance forms filed from 2012-2108. The installments we have received do not present grievances in chronological order, but rather appear to be grouped according to ICE’s internal filing system for them. A spreadsheet of ICE grievances also released to us under FOIA notes complaints about food service continuing into 2017 and 2018, but we have not yet received all the grievance forms referenced there.

[5] Bob Ortega, “Migrants describe hunger and solitary confinement at for-profit detention center”, CNN, July 11, 2018.

[6] Seattle University School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and OneAmerica, Voices from Detention: A Report on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, July 2008.

[7] Interview by Angelina Godoy and Manisha Jha with Christina Sherman, Program Manager for Food and Community Safety at TPCHD. February 21, 2020.

[8] The results of these inspections can be read here. Only minor violations were detected.

[9] Interview by Godoy and Jha with Sherman.

[10] The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules), Rule 19, paragraph 2.

[11] DHS OIG, Concerns About ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities, OIG-19-47, June 3, 2019.

[12] See, for example, Chapter 4.1 of the PBNDS 2011, which requires “the application of sound safety and sanitation practices in all aspects of food service and dining room operations,” and stipulates in detail the standards to which facility kitchens should adhere to meet sanitation standards; and Chapter 4.5, which governs Personal Hygiene and mandates the provision of clean clothing and the destruction of any “indelibly stained” clothing.

[13] ICE’s guidelines in light of COVID-19 are detailed on the agency’s website.