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Video shows heavily armed guards detaining hunger strikers at Tacoma ICE center after using tear gas

caption: Male detainees are shown in one of the housing units on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
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Male detainees are shown in one of the housing units on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma were subjected to tear gas, had guns pointed at them, and were physically restrained during a hunger strike last year for better living conditions.

Advocates for the detainees released footage Thursday of what happened to several protesters after chemical agents were used on them at the privately run facility.

The 41-minute video from Feb. 1, 2023, shows heavily armored guards entering the common area of Unit F4 at the processing center with rifles drawn, and then taking away one of the detainees in plastic cuffs.

During the encounter, several people are heard coughing, but the video does not show officials releasing chemical agents. Detainees have clothing over their faces.

Around 100 detainees ended up taking part in a six-day hunger strike for better food, more sanitary living conditions, and to be paid at least minimum wage for their labor. Similar protests advocating for changes at the Tacoma center have been organized by detainees in the year since the video was taken.

The video ends with the camera following one detainee who was escorted out of the unit with disposable cuffs, and a summary from a guard of what happened.

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

The advocate group La Resistencia, which obtained the footage, said GEO Group, the company that runs the Tacoma center, refused to provide video that shows the use of gas on the protesting detainees.

“They are still refusing to give us the video of when it happened,” said Maru-Mora Viallpando, an organizer with La Resistencia. “It’s in court now.”

Viallpando said La Resistencia has been able to obtain other videos that show excessive use of force and the use of “different types of chemicals” on detainees at the processing center.

But Christopher Ferreira, a spokesperson for GEO Group, said guards shown in the February 2023 video were following protocol approved by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“Staff were able to diffuse the initial disruption, with more than half of the detainees complying,” Ferreira said. “However, the remaining detainees continued to be unresponsive to staff orders and, as a matter of policy and protocols that are approved by ICE, staff used chemical agents to resolve the incident.”

RELATED: State regulators denied access to privately run ICE detention center in Tacoma

The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights published a report in August 2023 investigating what they call cruel use of force and chemical agents against immigrants. That report was sparked by the news of the events documented in the newly released video.

From 2016 to the beginning of 2023, the UW report said chemical agents have been used at least 29 times at the Northwest ICE Processing Center.

The report also said some detainees had been subjected to repeated use of force and chemical agents, “likely fueling, and being fueled by, the cycle of cruelty they experienced.”

Ferreira defended the use of gas by GEO Group guards and said detainees affected by the chemical agents were immediately treated.

“We take the use of chemical agents with the utmost seriousness,” Ferreira said, “and our staff follow strict federal standards that govern their use. Immediately, following this incident, all affected detainees were seen by on-site medical staff, and they were cleared with no injuries.”

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