Rules on prisons, detention centers prepping for review

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The Northwest Detention Center was the focus of much of the comments at Tacoma Planning Commission’s public hearing on regulations that will reach the City Council by this spring. The Northwest Detention Center was the focus of much of the comments at Tacoma Planning Commission’s public hearing on regulations that will reach the City Council by this spring. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The city’s interim regulations on correctional facilities are set to expire in March, so the city is in the final phase of drafting rules that will likely make them permanent. Much of the focus now involves ways to include all detention facilities.

The package of zoning regulations, for example, only uses the term “correctional facilities.” Critics of the privately=owned Northwest Detention Center, which houses people under administrative review of their residency status, want the word “detention” added to the rules. The addition would specifically include the GEO Group’s facility in the zoning rules. Residents of the NWDC are called detainees since many of them are being held while their residency status is under administrative review, rather being inmates or prisoners who face criminal charges.

Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The city enacted interim regulations last spring, largely over questions and criticisms surrounding the NWDC and any future expansions it might make. Those rules expire on March 6 so permanent rules are on the fast track for a final decision before winter begins to thaw.

The proposed permanent regulations are generally the same as the Correctional Facilities Interim Regulations that are currently in effect. Those rules would prohibit detainment facilities in multi-family and light-industrial zoning districts. Centers that are already built in those zones, such as GEO Group’s NWDC, would be allowed to continue to operate only under a conditional use permit. Any changes would require public notices to property owner up to 1,000 feet away, and a pre-application community meeting.

Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Specifically, the proposed changes would:

revise the land-use regulations so they treat public and private facilities equally;

articulate that any effort to increase the capacity of an existing facility be processed as a major modification; and

modify the review process to ensure “significant community engagement as part of any permit for significant modification of an existing correctional facility.”

The GEO Group has operated the facility for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement since 2005. It is the fourth largest detention center operator in the country. The company’s Tacoma facility houses about 1,500 detainees at its center on the Tideflats. The election of President Donald Trump, however, raised the issues of immigration and undocumented residents around the nation.

The City Council has since established an Immigrant Defense Fund of $50,000 to help provide legal assistance for detainees and allows for people to donate their own money to fund the effort. The goal is to reach at least $100,000. The city’s Immigrant and Refugee Task Force puts the need at closer to $500,000, however.

The state has also raised questions about GEO’s Tacoma facility.  Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office filed a lawsuit last fall against the company over the center’s practice of paying inmates $1 a day. The AG argues the facility is required to pay detainees the state’s minimum wage.

“A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day,” Ferguson said in the announcement of the lawsuit. “That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”

The state argues that GEO is violating Washington’s minimum wage laws since Washington’s minimum wage law does not exempt private, for-profit detention facilities.

The next step in Tacoma’s land-use efforts will come from the Planning Commission in the coming weeks, which will forward its recommendations to the City Council.

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