City edges toward final detention rules

Tacoma City Council is primed to enact zoning changes for detention and correction centers, largely following rising unease about the Northwest Detention Center on the Tideflats being located in a heavy-industrial zone. File Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma City Council is set to pass permanent zoning rules regarding detention and correctional facilities, following a study session public hearing on the proposed rules this week. The changes would replace the interim rules put in place last year that are set to expire in early March.

While the new rules also mention the Pierce County Jail and Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, most of the focus of review and debate centered on the Northwest Detention Center. Last year’s interim rules, in fact, came after the council approved an emergency moratorium on construction or expansion of correctional facilities out of concern about the Northwest Detention Center, a private detention center on the Tideflats that GEO Group operates through a federal contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.

The 1,575-bed facility has drawn local and national attention as the Trump administration steps up efforts against undocumented workers and illegal immigrants. The facility, which opened in 2004 and then expanded five years later, has long been the target of immigrant rights advocates and complaints about living conditions for the detainees. It is also the focus of a state lawsuit over the wages paid to detainees for doing work around the center, $1 a day.

That lawsuit is one reason that the city’s proposed zoning changes make the distinction between a “detention” and “correctional” center. A “detention” center houses people who are in custody pending the outcome of their legal proceedings, while a “correctional” center houses people following conviction of a criminal offense. The state allows for token pay for inmates doing work at a correctional center, but makes no concession for wages paid for work done by detainees. That’s the crux of the state’s case against GEO Group. The distinction in the city’s code avoids undermining the state’s case by including both terms. The rules for any current or future centers, whether correctional or for detainment, remain identical, however.

The proposed zoning rules up for council vote would prohibit any correctional and detention facilities in port naritime industrial and heavy industrial areas, such as where the Northwest Detention Center is located now, in an effort to halt further encroachment of what is essentially a dense residential facility on land that is zoned for heavy manufacturing. The Northwest Detention Center would become a legal but nonconforming use, meaning it would have to undergo a public review process. The zoning proposal, as it stands now, doesn’t include an amortization timeline like the city’s nonconforming use rules regarding billboards did. That could change.

“From my time on the planning commission and what I anticipate in terms of public comment is likely that we do not feel that the detention center fits within moral compass of the city,” Councilmember Chris Beale said. “… Some folks have made comments to the effect that they would like that facility gone at some point in time.”

Any future correctional and detention facilities would be allowed in light-industrial and multi-family neighborhoods only after a conditional-use permitting process that would require public notification and a pre-application community meeting. Changes in capacity to one of the three existing facilities would also trigger a public review.

Anyone thinking that the “permanent” rules the council will adopt will actually stay permanent would be wrong, however. Since the Northwest Detention Center is located on the Tideflats, its operations and compatibility with its industrial neighbors will be under review again soon, as the Tideflats area is currently the focus of a subarea plan that could take years to develop. That process isn’t likely going to make any possible expansion of the center easier.

“The (manufacturing and industrial center on the Tideflats) is an important, unique and finite-sized economic engine for Tacoma and the region,” stated Planning Commission Chairman Stephen Wamback in his letter to council. “Housing inappropriately competes with industrial uses and many industrial uses create unavoidable impacts on human health and well-being. …The commission commented on how previous generations’ poor planning allowed residential subdivisions to encroach on the port. We feel the same about correctional facilities and detention facilities. The city should have done more to engage the community in the past. The commission’s recommendations, if adopted, will require early engagement in the future.”

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