Open letter to the Tacoma Pierce County Board of Health,
From firsthand accounts of detainees in the GEO-run ICE center in the Port of Tacoma, we learned that health conditions of the people held are concerning. People are denied necessary surgeries, the dining tables are not wheelchair accessible and people in need of assistance for eating get no help from staff. Detainees with mobility problems are often forced to use the upper bunk for no reason other than the guards tell them so. A person going blind has not been allowed to consult a doctor.
Hygiene conditions are appalling and unfit for a wealthy society like ours. People are given used, unwashed undergarments and blankets. Hygiene articles are expensive, if available at all. GEO keeps 25 percent off any commissary money given to detainees by friends and families.
When an elected official recently tried to visit the detainees, GEO Group said a chicken pox outbreak had occurred and he was not allowed in for health concerns. Company guards later privately stated that there was no such outbreak.
All this is happening to people who are forced to work for a dollar or less a day. These violations are ongoing despite a City of Tacoma minimum wage ordinance. Fortunately, State Attorney General Ferguson is suing the very profitable GEO Group over labor law violations.
Let’s remember that the majority of people held there have no criminal records; some of them have had their children stolen and many are detained despite their legal right to seek asylum.
The Tacoma detention center has been reported to have high rates of sexual violence, beatings and abuse. Due to the horrid conditions, detainees have engaged in more than a dozen hunger strikes. One is happening right now. People on hunger strike are often punished with solitary confinement. The private, lucrative, for-profit GEO center is located on a toxic site with air pollution in a port not zoned for human habitation. And just recently West Nile virus was found very near the facility in the port.
The detention center is not accessible with public transportation. People visiting detainees have to try and find their way through the industrial port, walking past rows and rows of semi-trucks, which often run for hours and pollute the air. The sidewalks are littered and there is no signage for out of town visitors to find their way. I’ve walked to and from the center via downtown and the Dome District many times. It’s not pleasant and I can only imagine how it feels for visitors who are already enduring emotional stress. In fact, “going to Tacoma” means heartbreak, detention and abuse for too many in the migrant community.
The Health Department is responsible to protect the health of all. I urge department officials to investigate health, hygiene and safety conditions of these most vulnerable members of society and report back to our community. We cannot allow these horrible conditions to go on in the midst of our city while private for-profit GEO is making off rich on the backs of migrants. It’s long time for Tacoma to ensure the detainees are treated humanely and with decent care.