The Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) is located on a Superfund site in the tideflats of Tacoma. It is privately owned by the GEO Group —the second largest private prison contractor in the US—and can hold up to 1,575 people. All are imprisoned here to await a court hearing that will decide whether they will be deported or granted asylum or possibly some other legal status.
In August, fifty of us gathered outside this immigration facility for one of the monthly rallies held by NWDC Resistance, which is led by undocumented people. We were blessed with the presence of Maru Mora-Villalpando, who has devoted her life in this country to advocating for the undocumented. Maru is fierce and fearless—intensely so, as she faces deportation proceedings initiated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in January 2018.
At the rally we spoke with ShaCorrie, whose family member is inside, and heard from others inside who called Maru on her speakerphone. (We have changed their names.)
ShaCorrie Stunkara: My husband has been locked up for seven months. He has issues in his arm —he wasn’t taken to physical therapy, and he now has permanent disability. He’s going blind in both eyes. ICE has been told and paperwork has been provided. He has seen an eye doctor but there’s been no follow-up. He was born a human and should be treated like one. Lots of people inside are fighting for their lives with untreated illnesses. ICE and GEO Group need to be held accountable for the harm they are doing to families, to people’s health.
Arnoldo (calling from inside): Walls of showers are moldy, I’m sick and had to wait two hours to get to the hospital. There’s a person on the pod who’s been in a wheelchair for 23 years. We bring him food because the wheelchair won’t fit under table. He doesn’t receive medical attention.
Roberto (from inside): Don’t believe GEO and ICE. I have a hernia, which was supposed to be taken care of surgically in April 2016 but I was told, “Here we don’t give surgeries.” I have to press it to keep the hernia in. My right hand was injured due to a work injury—I have an open case with Labor and Industries.
William (from inside): I’ve been in detention for three months. The food is horrible. I’ve been sick with an infection in my back but have not gotten any treatment. There are lots of people with medical issues here. We face discrimination because people don’t speak English. I came with a head injury and the guards refuse to help me. I forget things and have problems learning but they expect me to represent myself before a judge. I have asked to see a specialist for glaucoma and was told I’m on a waiting list but I receive no medication or help. We get very small portions of food. People are hungry all the time. We are paid $1.00/day, there’s inadequate training and equipment. When we approached the warden, he said he has nothing to do about it. We are grateful for the attention of folks like you.
Maru Mora-Villalpando described some of the work of NWDC Resistance:
Working for better medical care
The lack of medical attention inside is drawing the attention of Senator Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith, who asked us what they can do. We are working with them to address the medical needs of detainees. We are also working with Conor McCarthy, who’s on the Tacoma City Council.
Lifting the spirits of those inside
It’s very important for them to know we are outside thinking of them. One man, Mr. Garcia, won his case, yet he is still detained. He went on a hunger strike for five days. On the first day of the hunger strike, Thursday, he was placed in solitary confinement, but on Saturday he was placed in medical isolation—completely alone. He said, “Not eating and not drinking water is not that difficult. What is difficult is being alone.” These people know how to break someone’s spirit. He called us and we were able to get him legal representation.
Our work was to answer the phone and make sure we would talk to him and send people to see him, to make sure his spirit wouldn’t be broken. Since he ended the hunger strike, he called us to say Hello. He’s continuing his fight and his mom texted me this morning: “I just wanted to say thank you for what you did for my son. My son is so grateful for everything—we sent him a photo of a vigil and he cried, ‘There are people who don’t even know us, yet they support us.’”
Bringing the voices of those inside the NWDC to the public
Detained people lead us; we are committed to bringing their voices to the public. There is a class action lawsuit moving in the court against GEO. Thousands of workers, if this succeeds, will get back money that GEO has stolen from them. This is one of three lawsuits filed against the $1/day program at NWDC. The most important part is that you only have lawsuits if you have plaintiffs. These plaintiffs are detained, which requires a lot of bravery. We should not forget that every lawsuit exists because people have chosen to fight back regardless of being detained.
NWDC Resistance is becoming a model for resistance in other places. We are working with groups from The Dalles, Oregon—Norcor County Jail is there. We also work with a California group—Inland Coalition for Immigration Justice in Victorville, CA—fighting the contract ICE has with federal prisons.
Small contributions make a difference
I’m not a fan of depositing money to accounts of detained people but I see the difference it can make. We have a fund to help people. A $20 donation will give a detainee $15 (there’s a $4.95 processing fee). A dad who was separated from his son at the border received $15 and was able to make calls to relatives who picked up his son–a major miracle!
Messages from families and those detained are how we sustain the work. Sometimes you think you are not making an impact, but actually it’s huge.
Wendy Tanowitz cares about justice. She focuses on issues related to mass incarceration and immigration.
NWDC Resistance is a movement led by undocumented people working to end detention of immigrants and stop deportations. They support and follow the leadership of those detained at the NWDC in Tacoma, demanding better treatment and conditions. www.nwdcresistance.org
AIDNW (Aid to Immigrants in Detention NW) trains volunteers to visit detainees; operates a Welcome Center outside the NWDC; and offers hospitality and post-detention accompaniment.