Calls for federal investigation into Tacoma detention center mount amid detainee death

Advocates say Washington’s congressional delegation isn’t doing enough to shut down the privately-owned, for-profit federal detention facility.

By: Grace Deng – April 1, 2024

Prominent politicians in Washington are calling for an investigation into overuse of solitary confinement at a federal, privately-run immigration facility in Tacoma after the death of a 61-year-old detainee. 

Charles Leo Daniel died on March 7 at the Northwest ICE Processing Center, also known as the Northwest Detention Center. Activists say Daniel died while in solitary confinement and hung himself with a blanket. Tacoma police, however, say there is no known cause of death. 

Democratic Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have now said there should be an investigation into the facility and sent a joint letter to the Department of Homeland Security calling for an end to the “misuse of solitary confinement” in detention centers. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, also a Democrat, also said she plans to send DHS a letter. 

“We are deeply concerned with findings that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to violate its own policies related to solitary confinement,” Murray, Cantwell and several other senators from other states wrote in their letter.

But advocates say statements and an investigation are not enough to deal with the issues plaguing the center. 

“We want consequences,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, who heads La Resistencia, a group calling for the facility’s closure.

Daniel was held in solitary confinement “for virtually the entirety of his nearly four years at the Northwest Detention Center,” according to researchers from the University of Washington Human Rights Center. The United Nations considers solitary confinement a form of torture if it lasts more than 15 days.

Northwest ICE Processing Center uses solitary confinement more than any other immigration detention facility in the country, UW researchers say. The GEO Group, the company that runs the facility, said in a statement that solitary confinement is used “in strict accordance with all applicable federal requirements.” An ICE spokesperson said the agency is committed to ensuring detainees “reside in safe, humane and secure environments.” 

Washington state inspectors have attempted to access the facility under a new state law meant to grant them more oversight amid the hundreds of reported human rights violations — including inadequate food, poor hygiene and mistreatment by staff — at the detention center, which is one of the largest in the country. 

But after a federal court sided with GEO in denying state inspectors access, activists and city of Tacoma officials have turned to the federal government. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts investigations into every death of a detainee in the agency’s custody. However, Washington lawmakers are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation into the facility’s use of solitary confinement, not just Daniel’s death.

Advocates want an investigation from an agency “completely” independent to ICE or DHS, said Villalpando.

“I’ve seen again and again that the inspections that have been done are very, very weak,” Villalpando said. 

‘Unacceptable tragedy’

Villalpando recently ended a two-week hunger strike to demand public statements from Murray and Cantwell on Daniel’s death.

She was joined at times by other activists from Tsuru from Solidarity, a Japanese-American activist organization. Dozens of detainees also participated in a hunger strike that started after Daniel’s death. Hunger strikes protesting conditions are common at the facility; this one is the third this year, according to La Resistencia. 

On March 13, the same day Villalpando began her hunger strike, Murray released a statement condemning Daniel’s death. 

“I have consistently pushed all federal detention facilities to improve conditions and supported community-based case management alternatives over detention,” Murray said.

Murray’s office told the Standard on Friday that the congresswoman would “certainly welcome an investigation from an oversight entity that has authority,” such as the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties or the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman, which regularly inspects the facility. 

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal released a statement on March 21 expressing sympathy for Daniel’s family. She called his death an “unacceptable tragedy.”

“There must be accountability and a full investigation to understand exactly what happened at the Northwest Detention Center,” the statement said. Jayapal’s statement does not specify what amounts to a “full investigation.”

Jayapal’s office also confirmed with ICE that Daniel had been in solitary confinement for 1,418 days. Her statement called on ICE to reduce detention and pointed out the “vast majority of detained people are there pending court proceedings.” Daniel’s deportation order was issued on Dec. 15, 2020.

On Thursday, Cantwell’s office released a statement to the Standard that called for an investigation into the facility’s “conditions for migrants, particularly the overuse of solitary confinement” but did not specify an investigative agency. 

“The Department of Homeland Security needs to more aggressively implement its Inspector General’s recommendations to ensure that this immigration detention center is safe, humane, and well-managed,” Cantwell said. 

‘What are they afraid of?’ 

Murray’s staff visited the detention center about 15 minutes after Daniel was discovered dead — but only found out about the death by reading KNKX reporting later that day, KNKX reports. Murray’s office said the senator will continue to “closely monitor” the situation at the detention center. 

Jayapal plans to send a letter to the Department of Homeland Security “calling for answers” and alongside Washington Rep. Adam Smith has introduced the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which is meant to improve conditions for detainees, end for-profit facilities and reduce detention overall. However, the act has stalled in Congress. 

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and city councilmembers Kristina Walker and Olgy Diaz also sent a letter on Thursday to Murray and Cantwell, as well as Washington Reps. Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland, urging them to request an “immediate inspection” into the facility from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. 

“The City of Tacoma has limited authority with this facility because it is owned and operated by a private corporation,” the letter said. “We need your help to spur federal involvement and oversight.” 

Murray’s office has confirmed ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility and DHS’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will be conducting an investigation into Daniel’s death, although neither office has said publicly if they will investigate solitary confinement at the facility. 

The senator’s office also said Murray has fought to keep the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman funded at the Department of Homeland Security and worked to ensure stronger oversight of federal detention facilities through a recent federal appropriations bill passed on March 21. 

Villalpando said what little action that has been taken isn’t enough. Aside from an investigation outside of ICE and DHS, she wants lawmakers to commit to a congressional oversight hearing and pointed out that Daniel’s name was not included in either of the senators’ statements. 

“What are they afraid of? Why are they so afraid? He’s a human being. He existed. He has a name,” Villallpando said. 

Meanwhile, activists have ended their 24/7 encampment monitoring of the facility but will continue to hold vigil at the facility from noon to 7 p.m. every day. The activists say GEO staff have harassed them and vandalized an altar for Daniel outside the facility. 

GEO said in a statement that the company “rejects these politically motivated and baseless allegations, which are clearly part of a choreographed effort to abolish ICE.” Villalpando, after hearing GEO’s statement, joked that they’ve choreographed a dance to abolish ICE. 

“I imagine us dancing to the beat: Abolish ICE, abolish ICE,” she said.