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Human rights group raises alarm about use of force, chemical weapons at Tacoma ICE center

caption: A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
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A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

In a new report, the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights has raised concerns about the use of force at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma and how those incidents are being reported.

Researchers with the Center for Human Rights say they've leaned on Freedom of Information Act requests to gather information about use of force at the ICE processing center, which detains people who are undocumented as they await rulings related to their immigration status. In some cases, people may be detained for years at a time.

The data provided by ICE has been incomplete, said Angelina Godoy, director of the Center for Human Rights. Even when looking at the partial data, there are a lot of inconsistencies, she added.

“If ICE’s own data is so poor and internally inconsistent, then we're going to have real problems, for example, when we go to implement HB 1470, which mandates that the Department of Health do inspections and improve conditions at the facility,” she said.

RELATED: Hunger strike suspended at Tacoma ICE facility, but objections remain

In July, the Washington State Department of Health started staffing up positions that would conduct the inspections mandated under HB 1470, which was passed into law earlier this year.

“DOH is in the very early stages of implementation and rulemaking, and we are working to understand the breadth of issues related to private detention centers in Washington,” said Department of Health spokesperson Frank Ameduri in an email statement.

Godoy said the Center for Human Rights is also concerned about the use of chemical agents on detainees, and her team combed through data with an eye on that issue, too.

“We discovered…it's actually quite frequent and a lot more frequent than the public generally knows,” she said. “We decided to look into that and try to understand better: How is force used? How regularly is it used? Against whom is it used? And what are the implications of that for human rights conditions at the facility?”

From April 2018 to May 2019, there have been 13 times where staff were forceful and used chemical agents on detainees, according to the center's report.

Officials speaking on behalf of the Northwest ICE Processing Center and GEO group, the private company contracted by the federal government to run the facility, told KUOW they follow ICE detention standards when it comes to treatment of detainees and conditions at the processing center.

"In accordance with these standards, [Enforcement and Removal Operations] may authorize non-lethal use of force only when absolutely necessary," said David Yost, an ICE spokesperson, in an email statement provided on behalf of the agency. "Examples of those necessary instances include self-defense or protection of others that are needed to ensure the safety of all people in the facility including noncitizens and staff. Detainees subjected to use of force are seen by medical staff as soon as possible."

In an email statement provided by GEO Group spokesperson Christopher Ferreira, company officials said they "strongly reject the allegations contained in the report by the University of Washington’s Human Rights Center."

However, an ICE official confirmed to KUOW in February that chemical agents had been used against detainees after a disruption related to a hunger strike.

This event was the catalyst for the research behind the Center for Human Rights' report, Godoy told KUOW.

In reference to that hunger strike, GEO Group said that its "response to the February 2023 incident at the Northwest ICE Processing Center was consistent with all [federal performance-based national detention standards]" and that "following the incident, all affected detainees were seen by on-site medical staff and cleared with no injuries."

The statement continues, "If any detainee is dissatisfied with a facility’s response to a grievance or fears retaliation, they can appeal and/or communicate directly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

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