Report charges abuse of immigrant detainees at Tacoma center
A wide-ranging 65-page report released Tuesday by Seattle University School of Law and OneAmerica paints a frightful picture of conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, with allegations ranging from overzealous strip searches and underfed detainees to delayed medical care. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the report a "work of fiction."
Seattle Times staff reporter
Six immigrants being flown by federal authorities to Alabama last summer were denied the use of bathrooms for seven hours and forced to sit in their own excrement, according to a new report by the Seattle University School of Law.
The 65-page report, "Voices From Detention,"examined the treatment of detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
In the report, detainees told researchers about one man — a mentally ill Cambodian — who they say was punched by U.S. marshals and later struggled to breathe after a hood was put on his head during the cross-country flight.
The alleged incident occurred as detainees were being transferred temporarily from the detention center in Tacoma, as sometimes is the case when authorities need to free up bed space in advance of a big raid.
Immigration officials called the report a "work of fiction." They said detainees are never denied bathroom privileges on these flights and that they have no reports of any of this having happened.
The report's findings, released during a news conference Tuesday by the law school's human-rights clinic in collaboration with the immigrant-rights group OneAmerica, is intended to draw attention to conditions at the privately run Tacoma facility.
The findings come as immigrant detention has become the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the U.S., the study's authors noted.
Gwynne Skinner, a visiting professor from Willamette University College of Law in Oregon who oversaw the study, said the alleged conditions violate international human rights.
Seattle University students interviewed 41 detainees — one-third of them refugees — four attorneys and one family member to gauge their experiences at the center. The real names of the detainees were not used in the report.
Many of their complaints stemmed from overcrowding and ranged from overzealous strip-searches to delays in receiving medical care.
"As Americans concerned with upholding our Constitution and assuring justice and human rights, we should remember that America is degraded when the government fails to uphold those very rights that make us a great country," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, formerly Hate Free Zone.
Officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which pays the detention center's operator, GEO Group, $95 a day for each detainee it houses, said the report is "filled with inaccuracies and vague allegations."
Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for ICE, said the detention center meets, or in many cases exceeds, its own as well as national detention standards.
"People don't like to be in detention," she said. "But there are consequences to breaking federal immigration law. And when detainees appeal their cases, it lengthens their time in detention. They can at any time give up their appeal" and leave the U.S.
Built on the Tacoma Tideflats, the detention center opened with 500 beds in 2004 amid protests from local activists who said a former toxic-waste dump site was not a proper place to house immigrants.
The center has since been expanded to house 1,000 detainees, and plans are afoot to add another 500 beds.
Tuesday morning, there were 990 immigrants in custody from 73 countries, a third with criminal backgrounds. More than half the detainees were Mexicans.
The report's authors said conditions are consistent with those at detention centers across the country. They are calling on Congress to pass laws that protect the rights of detainees.
Attorneys complained about having to wait up to two hours to see clients, a result of internal disorganization and inadequate meeting space. Because they generally bill clients for all that time, many immigration lawyers say the delays increasingly make legal representation too expensive for detainees and not worth it for them to take these cases.
Detainees in the study say they were pressured to sign documents or asked to sign paperwork they didn't understand, a practice their attorneys say often leads to their unwitting deportation.
One officer refers to Mexicans as cucarachas, the Spanish word for cockroaches, according to the report. It said one particular guard tore down or opened shower curtains while a detainee was showering, exposing the detainee to the entire pod.
The report said one woman, after an attorney's visit, was strip-searched and told to open her legs while a female guard peeped into her private parts.
Dankers said strip-searches are a security measure to ensure detainees aren't handed prohibited items during visits with their attorneys. To avoid strip searches, they could request a partitioned meeting room, she said.
She said ICE recently signed a contract with one outside firm to conduct annual evaluations at the center, and with a second for on-site quality assurance.
Stories from anonymous individuals should immediately raise questions about credibility, Dankers said, adding that "ICE will look at this to see if any of these allegations are founded. But because we can't drill down, it hampers our ability to respond to some of these claims."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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