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Detainee Hunger Strike In Tacoma Sparks Federal Bill

caption: File photo of the interior of Northwest Detention Center.
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File photo of the interior of Northwest Detention Center.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma recently ended after nearly two months, but the ripple effects continue. U.S. Congressman Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, plans to introduce a bill Thursday that would change how federal agencies operate and audit detention centers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, currently oversees detention facilities. Smith said he sees a problem with a lack of federal oversight. It’s comparable to a politician writing his own performance review, Smith said.

“Right now the facilities are audited by the same people – ICE – who put out the regulations,” Smith said. “Unsurprisingly, ICE thinks ICE is doing an amazing job.”

Smith said he recently heard less glowing reviews from the detainees on hunger strike. They complained about bad food, low pay for jobs at the detention center and harsh treatment by some guards.

Smith’s bill would change who sets the standards for how these facilities operate, for everything from dietary guidelines to discipline.

Andrew Muñoz, ICE spokesman for the Seattle office, said ICE does not comment on pending or proposed legislation. But on the agency’s website, ICE says it creates detention standards with input from ICE personnel and non-governmental organizations.

“Input is not same as legally binding,” Smith said. “What does input mean? Do they listen to them or don’t they?”

Smith’s legislation follows the model of federal prisons, whereby detention standards would be established by federal law and not by ICE alone. Smith believes that change would lead to better regulations and more reliable, independent audits. However, Smith admits the bill’s passage is a long shot.

Many detention facilities, including the Northwest Detention Center, are operated by private contractors. Smith said that although he questions this relationship, his bill does not address it because the facilities were built by the private companies.

“So if we were to eliminate the contracting thing, we’d be without the facilities and we’d face a huge bill to build new ones," Smith said. "So, we’re trying to figure out how to get around the contractor problem.”

When the Tacoma hunger strike began on March 7, ICE officials said 750 detainees refused meals. Some went without food for several weeks. Supporters called the hunger strike a victory, as it gained national attention and sparked protests elsewhere.

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