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UW Center for Human Rights Publishes Report on COVID-19 at the Northwest Detention Center

Graphic depicting fenced in yard at NWDC, with drawing of virus particles. Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo created by Wan HD from Noun Project
Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo by Wan HD from Noun Project

December 16, 2020

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) published a new report, “COVID-19 and Health Standards at the Northwest Detention Center”, part of an ongoing series which has examined topics including sanitation of food and laundry, allegations of medical neglect, and use of solitary confinement.

The new report responds to a July 2020 request from Washington State Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, who asked UWCHR for information regarding human rights conditions in the Tacoma, WA immigration detention facility. The report also draws on a partnership with faculty and law students at the University of Washington School of Law Immigration Clinic, who conducted an analysis of legal issues involved in efforts to regulate health and safety at the NWDC at the state or local level.

The UWCHR report emphasizes three main findings:

  1. Long-standing health and safety concerns at the Northwest Detention Center have become more urgent due to the COVID-19 pandemic;
  2. DHS and ICE inspections and oversight mechanisms have failed to correct abuses at the facility;
  3. Local and state authorities have chosen not to exercise their regulatory authority over the facility.

“What these findings show is that political will, not legal authority, is what’s lacking to make change,” said UWCHR Director Prof. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy. “The local health department claims they are impotent to do anything, when even ICE has repeatedly said in court that they are regular partners in decision-making regarding COVID management at the NWDC. We don’t need more structures to investigate and report violations but never produce change. We need political will to recognize the problem at its root is the unnecessary civil detention of immigrants.”

The report includes an appendix authored by the UW School of Law Immigration Clinic, which concludes that the WA Governor’s Office and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department have broad powers to require the NWDC to adhere to state and local law.

“The legal memorandum concludes that state and local authorities in the State of Washington have long had the power to regulate the Northwest Detention Center, a for-profit prison operated by the GEO Group,” said Prof. Jennifer Lee Koh, Visiting Lecturer & Director of the UW School of Law Immigration Clinic. “The fact that GEO has a contract with the federal government does not automatically prohibit state and local government from exercising its powers.”

The UWCHR report was released days after the latest report of a positive COVID-19 case of a person detained at the NWDC, reportedly the first case among the general population at the detention center, rather than being introduced through facility transfers. In total, at least 23 detained people and 8 workers associated with the facility have tested positive for COVID-19.

Advocates have redoubled efforts to secure the release of people detained at NWDC, sharing reports of dire conditions in detention, including allegations of brutality and retaliation against detained people, such as the retaliatory use of solitary confinement. On Tuesay, December 15, La Resistencia, an undocumented-led grassroots group supporting people facing detention and deportation at NWDC, reported that five people were on hunger strike within the facility.

“ICE and its accomplices at GEO Group have shown again and again total disregard for human life. Their modus operandi is based on dehumanizing our communities. This report proves what people in detention have said every time they have done hunger strikes: retaliation and torture is the response of ICE and GEO when people speak up,” said La Resistencia co-founder Maru Mora Villalpando. “That’s why we must shut down NWDC immediately and begin a process to abolish ICE; and a reparations process for all who have endured ICE’s cruelty and torture.”

In 2021, UWCHR will continue to investigate human rights concerns at the NWDC as part of its ongoing work examining the human rights consequences of immigration enforcement in Washington state.

About the UWCHR

The UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) is the only university-based human rights center in the country established by state law with a mission to work with community-based organizations to improve human rights outcomes. Since 2009, the UWCHR has partnered with grassroots advocates, policymakers, and others on the front lines of human rights struggles who seek research to inform their actions. In this way, all of the UWCHR’s work combines cutting-edge research, student education, and community engagement.