Research Informs Debates Over Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center
For years, people detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma have reported human rights concerns, though a lack of transparency regarding the facility’s operations has made these difficult to investigate independently. Recent years have seen Congressional inquiries, cases in federal court, and numerous campaigns by advocacy organizations, some spurred by high-profile hunger strikes within the facility itself. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, longstanding concerns about detention conditions have become more urgent. In response, the UW Center for Human Rights published a series of reports on human rights conditions at the facility from April to December 2020.
These reports draw on research conducted using numerous tools, among them the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. UWCHR filed over a dozen separate FOIA requests related to the NWDC in recent years and was forced to take the Department of Homeland Security to court in September 2018 over its failure to respond lawfully to these requests. While this litigation remains pending, to date it has produced thousands of pages of records, some of which represent the first such material to be shared publicly about ICE detention facilities. For example, UWCHR researchers reviewed solitary confinement logs produced by both ICE and GEO, the private company that runs the NWDC, and which has historically declined to provide information about its practices. These records showed that reported solitary confinement placements in Tacoma are among the longest in the nation, on average; meanwhile, most solitary placements go unreported under ICE’s own guidelines. Documents show that solitary confinement is being used in cases of detained people with mental illness, in violation of international standards; and in apparent retaliation against hunger strikers and organized detained people exercising their First Amendment rights.
Earlier this year, UWCHR’s research was among the evidence shared with the Washington State Legislature as it deliberated over HB 1090, a bill that banned private, for-profit detention centers and prisons in Washington, and would mandate the eventual closure of the NWDC. Governor Inslee signed the bill into law in April 2021; while it is currently before the courts following a challenge brought by GEO, advocates expect the facility to close by 2025.
Read our full report series on Human Rights Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center.
A Victory: Cowlitz County Ends Its ICE Contract
UWCHR joined local and national human rights organizations in celebrating the February 5, 2021, decision by Superior Court judges of Cowlitz County, Washington, to end the county’s contract to hold immigrant youth in civil detention in the county’s Youth Services Center. As of last year, the facility in Longview, Washington, was one of only three youth jails nationwide to hold youth for ICE for periods longer than 72 hours. In some cases, migrant youth were held at Cowlitz for as long as a year. As UWCHR researchers discovered, these youth had typically been separated from adult family members by ICE, who shipped them hundreds or thousands of miles to Washington state where they were held on civil charges, for which they were not provided representation.
Advocates locally and nationally raised serious concerns about the living conditions and legal implications of prolonged detention for immigrant youth in these facilities. Last year, Oregon’s NORCOR jail also ended its contracts with ICE, including its contract to hold juveniles, but the Cowlitz facility continued to collect $170 per day, per youth under its contract originating in 2001. Once UWCHR research exposed these practices, however, community organizing made the difference, with local faith groups and immigrant rights organizations in Longview taking the lead, supported by La Resistencia, the ACLU of Washington, and Columbia Legal Services.
The February announcement by Cowlitz county buoyed advocates’ hopes that ICE would discontinue this form of family separation, which had never been used in large numbers and lacked any public safety justification. Unfortunately, however, the one remaining youth in Cowlitz custody at the time of the contract’s closure was transferred to a facility in Winchester, Virginia, which advocates soon learned had become the latest to ink a lucrative contract with ICE for holding kids.
Read journalist Esmy Jimenez’s in-depth coverage of the campaign to end immigrant youth detention in Cowlitz County via Reveal.
Monitoring New Laws to Protect Immigrant Rights
The Washington State legislature’s recent passage of the Keep Washington Working Act (KWW) and the Courts Open to All Act (COTA) place Washington state at the forefront of national efforts to protect immigrant rights through state laws, often dubbed “sanctuary” policies. Yet the mere passage of these laws doesn’t mean they’re actually being enforced, as faculty, staff, and student researchers working on the Center’s new Immigrant Rights Observatory initiative discovered this year. After 18 months of research evaluating the implementation of KWW and COTA through the analysis of practices in 13 priority counties, UWCHR published its first report on this topic in August 2021.
This represents a new effort in UWCHR’s engagement with immigrant rights issues through rigorous empirical research rooted in community partnerships to inform improved policy-making. We took on this challenge when approached by a coalition of organizations, including the Washington Defender Association, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, ACLU of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, OneAmerica, and the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, many of whom supported the passage of these laws yet remained concerned about how they would be implemented across the state. Supervised by UWCHR faculty and staff, and coordinated by UW undergraduate and graduate students from the School of Law, the Information School, and the College of Arts and Sciences, the project seeks to monitor on-the-ground practices in 13 priority counties as public officials adjust to the new requirements of these laws.
Read the full report, “Protecting Immigrant Rights: Is Washington’s Law Working?”
Unfinished Sentences El Salvador
The long work for justice in El Salvador continues to move forward in fits and starts, though pandemic conditions and growing concerns about the rising tide of authoritarian governance have generated setbacks for the victims and advocates UWCHR has long accompanied in the region. Nonetheless, in conversation with our partners, we found new ways to continue the fight through digital workshops and other efforts. In August 2020, for example, we joined leaders from Asociación Pro-Búsqueda on Zoom to commemorate the 1982 massacre of La Conacastada; and from October to December, we hosted a series of workshops to share and analyze U.S. documents about torture with former political prisoners.
While U.S. documents about wartime repression are often used by scholars and legal advocates in Latin America, they are rarely shared with survivors of the atrocities themselves. Our efforts show that when used responsibly, declassified documents can be important tools in victims’ healing processes. Members of the Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador (COPPES), for example, expressed their conviction that access to declassified documents containing details that corroborated some of their experiences constituted a form of reparations.
Our stateside FOIA work, too, has continued apace, and we’ve made some important discoveries. For example, the above extract from a recently declassified document describes the military operation in which the massacres of El Calabozo and La Conacastada occurred, providing additional detail about the involvement of specific battalions. This document and similar ones we have received permit us to knit together key information about command responsibility for those cases, which we can now trace to specific individuals.
Stay up-do-date with the Unfinished Sentences El Salvador project.
Launch of New Tribal Rights and Climate Change Project
On May 27, 2021, UWCHR inaugurated a new area of human rights education and research in the state of Washington with the symposium “Communicating Tribal Rights and Forwarding Environmental Justice with Local Coast Salish People.” Led by Professors Patrick Christie and Jonathan Warren, this project aims to center the rights of Native peoples in discussions about climate change and environmental sustainability through partnerships with Native communities to support recovery of the Salish Sea.
The project understands Native communities as leaders and knowledge producers in this area, enlisting the support of UW faculty and students to engage in innovative digital storytelling in partnership with Indigenous communities in Washington state. By joining the skills and energies of UW faculty and students studying human rights and environmental sciences with Native communities leading stewardship efforts, project leaders hope to help shift the conversation about climate change mitigation strategies. Focusing on themes of Tribal sovereignty, climate resiliency, fishery treaty rights, and Tribally-led environmental protection and restoration policies, digital storytelling tools will be shared with the public through educational venues and other efforts. We believe such efforts can aid in the longer-term recovery of the Salish Sea by catalyzing intercultural collaboration between tribal and non-tribal youth, shaping shared understandings of the challenges before us, and ensuring a lasting legacy of cross-cultural environmental education and effective communications capacity between the Tulalip Tribes and UW.
Learn more about the Indigenous Rights and Environmental Sustainability project.