Long days at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center

PCIS volunteers make frequent drives from Pacific County to Tacoma, Washington to support immigrant families with a family member in detention. Stephanie Serrano, immigrant advocate and PCIS volunteer describes the forbidding environment at the for-profit NWDC.

The Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) is an ominous place. It is deliberately hidden in an industrial area in Tacoma far from the public eye.  When you enter the building, you are met by guards who ask for your driver’s license. You must sign in and state who you are visiting and the nature of your visit such as a court hearing, etc. You are directed to a wall of lockers that require a coin deposit in order to work. You must put all your possessions in the locker and enter the courtroom with nothing on your person except clothing. Only reporters may have a pen and paper. No phones. No water. Nothing.

The main entry room is large and has a metal detector that all must pass through. Once through, you are scanned with a metal detector wand by one of the NWDC guards as you stand in front of rows of plastic chairs that look like they have been attached to the building since the 1970s, but the center was built in 2004.

You then proceed to a locked door which you must press a button on to be let into a secured waiting area for court. Once you hear the buzzer, you open the door to a sterile room of hard wooden chairs. There are three sheets of paper clipped on the wall which contain the docket lists of the day’s court session. You see names of people from all over the world, not just Mexico, but Nigeria, India.  Pick a country – it is likely to be on the docket.

The worst day of their lives

Sitting in these chairs are people dressed in their Sunday best clothes waiting with their children. Many of them have driven hundreds of miles to be in court to support their husbands and wives, sons and daughters on quite possibly, the worst day of their lives. All these families sit waiting, sometimes for many hours facing large portraits of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions on the wall across from them. There is no art, there are no children’s toys, no music, just some magazines which are torn and tattered.

There is information behind the door about the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an organization that is presently overburdened with all the cases flooded by ICE’s constant raids in order to keep this center of 1,575 beds full. ICE pays GEO, which runs the NWDC (one of the largest detention centers in America). It costs $100.65 each day, per bed, for the first 1,181 beds and $62.52 daily for every occupied bed in excess of the contract minimum of the facility’s capacity.  NWDC, this for-profit detention center at the very least, brings GEO $43.4 million per year, or at best, $52.5 million a year.

Detainees work to achieve these kinds of profits, doing kitchen tasks or janitorial duties. They are paid one dollar a day, or a snack.  Luckily, we have a remarkable Attorney General in our state, Bob Ferguson, who is suing the Northwest Detention Center for violation of labor laws.

Once your long wait is over and you are led down the long corridor hallway to the courtroom, you see detainees in orange jumpsuits being led into the courtroom which is unlike any normal courtroom… it is locked.  When you are in the courtroom at NWDC, unlike most court rooms, it is small, and there are many, many cases and  a rapid flow of these cases. Often, a detainee is not represented by an attorney and does not speak English.  Sometimes there is a real interpreter and other times there is a mechanical interpreter which, of course does not follow personal clues, and obviously, cannot know, and or visualize the frustration of a detainee who doesn’t understand.

PCIS is there to support, and advocate for immigrant families

As advocates, we have seen detainees  led away in tears with no lawyer to defend them, and clearly no understanding of what had just happened in the courtroom. This is heartbreaking to watch. You are not allowed to speak to, touch, or interfere with any detainee in the courtroom. With any outburst, you could be asked to leave.

This is challenging as an activist, because we are there as advocates, not activists. We come to support families and be there for them, regardless of the verdict. Quite often, we also help with the children during those long hours in the waiting room. We stay  with them when the parent may need a moment to compose themselves and think about next steps. We may engage with the family member’s lawyer about a letter of support to the court, and/or other ideas to help the family. Advocates and family members also think about the resources that their husband (or wife) might need, like food from the commissary (as most people lose weight at NWDC due to their subsistence diet).  Pacific County Immigrant Support supplies money to their commissary account because a cup of instant soup costs them $5.00.

Arduous, compassionate work

Just outside the NWDC sits a van. It is for AID NW, which stands for Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, a non-profit organization offering a wellspring of resources for detainees and their families since 2005. They help with housing,  clothing, bus fare, visiting people in the detention center and providing books for detainees. They routinely greet people at the detention gates who are released from  the detention center.  Some released detainees are thousands of miles from home and have no way to get back home and AID NW offers assistance.

These days are long for the advocates and family members as we must get up about usually around 4am from North Pacific County to arrive at the NWDC by 8am. Some days we are there for 8 to 9 hours round trip. Asylum hearings can take 3 hours, compared to Master hearings which just introduce the cases to the court and are very brief.

As volunteer advocates for Pacific County Immigrant Support, we hope to provide understanding and compassion and also to know about the resources that, in turn, can provide the best help for the families during this crisis.