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On Thursday, November 10th, 2011, ILG representatives Leland Baxter-Neal and Holly Jackson drove toTacoma,Washington for a tour of the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). The tour, an opportunity for immigrant rights advocates to view parts of the labyrinthine complex normally closed off to the public (including attorneys), passed through living quarters, a recreational area, the intake area, and the medical services offices. Four ICE officials led the tour.

Tacoma’s detention facility is operated by The GEO Group, a private corporation. TheUnited Statesgovernment (ICE) pays GEO for the use of 1,100 beds per day, at a minimum—even if there are fewer than 1,100 people being detained. Currently, there are between 1,200 and 1,300 detainees at NWDC, with a facility capacity of 1,575. The average time ICE detains people is 32 – 38 days.

Throughout the detention center, one sees male detainees in blue, orange, or red uniforms. These uniforms are visual signifiers of the wearers’ legal histories and classification in ICE’s system: Men in red uniforms are classified as “level 3 detainees,” and have criminal charges; men in orange uniforms are classified as “level 2 detainees,” and have charges of lesser magnitudes; men in blue uniforms are classified as “level 1 detainees,” and have no criminal charges. Level 1 and level 3 detainees are never allowed to “commingle,” or share the same space—even a hallway. Similarly, men and women are never allowed to commingle. Women, unlike men, all wear yellow uniforms, and only women in levels 1 and 2 remain at NWDC; women classified as level 3 are sent to North Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities inThe Dalles,Oregon.

Detainees spend their time in “pods,” or living quarters, large rooms with loft areas where people sleep, eat their meals, and spend time watching T.V. Detainees also have restricted access to a small legal library and a multi-purpose room where religious services and daily presentations by Northwest Immigrant Rights Project are held. A cement area about half the size of a basketball court, walled in on all sides except for high open-air windows, serves as the recreational area. However, some groups of detainees are only allowed one hour per day in this “fresh air” space.

People detained at NWDC usually arrive from state and local jails that contract with ICE to hold detainees (known as Intergovernmental Service Agreement or IGSA facilities). Some of these facilities are a day’s drive away from NWDC. Bussed toTacomain GEO buses—sometimes in shackles—detainees enter NWDC through a sally-port directly into the intake area of the facility. The detention facility staff must complete intake within a maximum of 12 hours. People who are waiting for their intake remain in bare rooms with cement benches. Every detainee receives a 3-minute phone card, and there are phones in these holding rooms with instructions for calling country consulates.

The ICE officials leading the tour extolled the medical services provided during intake, which include mandatory medical exams, chest x-rays for tuberculosis screening, and pregnancy tests for all women. Currently, 3 out of approximately 130 female detainees are pregnant.

ICE officials invoked the “Standard” when accounting for regulations such as the 12-hour maximum time for intake and detainee segregation. In fact, this Standard is set by ICE. Other organizations, including GEO, perform regular audits of the facility, and the facility and its medical services are audited and accredited by multiple agencies, both governmental and private.

Throughout the tour, ICE officials repeatedly drew comparisons between the detention center and local jails, lauding the detention center’s cleanliness as opposed to that of jails. However, this comparison is not an apposite one; the detention center is not a jail, and the people there have not been sentenced to jail time—although they are held for lengthy and unspecified amounts of time.