WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D-WA, 9th), and a group of Washington state lawmakers in urging leaders of Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) to provide regular updates on the steps they are taking to mitigate and respond to any potential outbreaks of COVID-19 at the facility. The lawmakers sent a letter to the head of GEO Group, the company that operates the NWDC, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Officer for the NWDC requesting that they provide weekly briefings to the lawmakers regarding health and safety conditions at the facility and the impact of COVID-19 on detainees and staff. Senators Cantwell and Murray and Representative Smith were joined on the letter by U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA, 7th), Denny Heck (D-WA, 10th), Derek Kilmer (D-WA, 6th), and Rick Larsen (D-WA, 2nd).
“The NWDC is one of the largest ICE dedicated facilities in the country, and as the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continues to climb, we share the concerns that public health experts have expressed regarding the continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities,”the lawmakers wrote.
The lawmakers continued: “We appreciate your prompt attention to the issues we have raised, and look forward to weekly congressional telephonic briefings surrounding the safety practices of the NWDC amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
The lawmakers’ letter follows reports of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the Tacoma facility. In previous briefings with the lawmakers, NWDC officials have not indicated that they are taking the necessary measures to protect detainees and staff from COVID-19. In an April 24th telephone briefing, ICE officials informed the Washington state lawmakers that they had identified 128 detainees for potential release because they were at high risk for severe illness due to the COVID-19 threat, but at the time had only released 16 detainees and did not plan to release any more. During that briefing, ICE officials also told the lawmakers that despite testing more than 1,500 detainees across the country, only 7 detainees at NWDC had been tested since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous briefings, ICE officials have not been clear as to whether proper social distancing at NWDC is being practiced, or is even possible with the number of detainees in the facility.
Read the full letter below or HERE.
George C. Zoley
Chief Executive Officer
The GEO Group Inc.
621 NW 53rd Street, Suite 700
Boca Raton, FL 33487
Field Office Director
Tacoma Northwest Detention Center
1623 E J Street, Suite 2
Tacoma, WA 98421
Dear Mr. Zoley and Ms. Asher,
Given the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and our continued conversations with staff and officials within the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) and at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we write to request a weekly telephonic briefing for congressional offices in Washington state in order to ensure further steps are being taken by GEO and the NWDC to plan, mitigate, and respond to any potential outbreak at the Northwest Detention Center. This is especially important since last Friday, May 8, ICE confirmed that a detainee tested “recovered positive” during medical intake screening upon arrival at NWDC, the first known positive case at the NWDC to date.
As of April 25th, 2020, ICE has reported 29,675 as their total detained population. Further, 869 detainees, 42 ICE employees at detention facilities, and 102 ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. The NWDC is one of the largest ICE dedicated facilities in the country, and as the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continues to climb, we share the concerns that public health experts have expressed regarding the continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities.
In our congressional telephonic briefing on April 24th, 2020, ICE informed us that 128 detainees at NWDC had been identified for potential release based on their higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19. However, at the time of the call, only 16 people had actually been released and ICE indicated that they did not plan to release additional detainees from the pool of 128 people identified as medically vulnerable. In addition, ICE stated that only 7 detainees have been tested in total at the NWDC since the COVID-19 outbreak, despite the fact that ICE has tested 1,528 detainees nation-wide, and Washington state was among the first states to be hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. We express concern over the delayed release and testing of these individuals, and would like to continue receiving weekly congressional telephonic briefings from ICE and officials operating the NWDC regarding the testing and release of other medically vulnerable individuals.
On congressional telephonic briefings, ICE has also claimed that it set an occupancy threshold of 70% inside its facilities to reduce the number of detainees, but also admitted that this threshold was likely insufficient to meet the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ICE reported to our staffs that its occupancy is currently at 45%, well below this 70% figure, but equally could not confirm whether this threshold is actually sufficient for maintaining social distancing guidelines. Even more concerning were comments made by officials on congressional telephonic briefings that indicated that ICE officers could not necessarily enforce social distancing guidelines among detainees in the center.
We appreciate your prompt attention to the issues we have raised, and look forward to weekly congressional telephonic briefings surrounding the safety practices of the NWDC amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.