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Use of Force and Chemical Agents at the NWDC

October 18, 2023

The below text is featured in the UWCHR 2022-2023 Annual Report.
Written by Angelina Godoy

In 2023, conditions at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) came once again under scrutiny as those detained in the facility staged a series of hunger strikes to protest conditions, while legislators passed a bill mandating increased state oversight of all private detention facilities in Washington, including the NWDC. In this context, confirmed reports of the deployment of chemical agents against hunger strikers in the facility in February 2023 raised concerns about the use of force. At the request of community partners, the UW Center for Human Rights conducted an analysis of the human rights implications of the use of force at the Northwest Detention Center and published a report on this topic, the eighth in our series regarding human rights conditions at ICE’s Northwest Detention Center.

UWCHR researchers drew on ICE documents, including Significant Incident Reports, Disciplinary Detention Reviews, Records of Deportable/Inadmissible Aliens, and others, to construct a record of 70 use of force incidents at the Northwest Detention Center during a period of seven years and five months between 2015 and 2023. The incidents themselves ranged in nature from the spontaneous use of physical force to break up fights, to the deployment of chemical agents to obligate detained people to “follow officer orders,” to the force-feeding of a hunger striker. Use of force is particularly likely to occur during “cell extractions,” or the forced moving of a resistant person from one cell to another; this occurs most frequently in the Restricted Housing Unit.

Because UWCHR’s access to information about specific incidents was limited, the report did not focus on inquiring as to the legitimacy of individual instances of use of force, instead examining the overall pattern and its human rights implications. Researchers identified three major areas of concern: the use of force against people with mental illness; the use of force against people engaged in nonviolent protests or hunger strikes; and the facility’s failure to follow its own rules, rendering untreated mental illness and protests/hunger strikes more likely, and thus increasing the propensity for further use of force through escalating cycles of conflict and cruelty.

The use of force against individuals with mental illness who failed to follow orders is particularly troubling given the fact that such individuals may be unable to follow guards’ orders due to their illness rather than as acts of willful disruption. Tragically, in many cases individuals with mental health challenges were subjected to escalating attacks over time, in a pattern that suggests a deterioration of the individual’s mental health, likely fueling, and being fueled by, the cycle of cruelty they experienced. For example, one detained man experienced thirteen instances of use of force between June and August 2019, six of which involved the use of chemical agents. In one such incident, ICE reports indicate that he was sprayed with chemical agents and left on his solitary cell floor in restraints, from where he screamed, “I am insane.”

The internal documents reviewed also show that both physical and chemical means of force were deployed against those speaking out about conditions in detention, including those resorting to constitutionally protected free speech actions like hunger strikes. ICE internal documents routinely characterize hunger strikers as “facility security threats,” a designation that is then used to justify the use of force against them and their placement in solitary confinement. This is, indeed, permissible under ICE’s published standards, which do not distinguish between threats of interpersonal violence and the “threats” posed by those engaged in hunger strikes.

Lastly, the records reviewed reveal that ICE’s and GEO’s system of internal monitoring and oversight—its detainee grievance system, its reporting of instances of use of force up the chain for agency review, its facility inspections and its contract enforcement tools—does not work to detect and remediate abuses that occur. With so little reason to believe these mechanisms offer any meaningful protection, those detained are more likely to experience despondency and other mental health challenges, and more likely to engage in protests. Yet both of these developments too often simply trigger additional use of force. By incarcerating people in conditions of extreme deprivation, providing poor access to health care, especially for those with mental illness, and offering no meaningful mechanism by which individuals can contest ill-treatment when it happens, the NWDC creates the circumstances under which the use of violence and chemical weapons has become a regular part of facility operations.

Read the full “Cycles of Cruelty” report here.