PHOTOS: A rare look inside Tacoma’s immigration jail | KUOW News and Information

PHOTOS: A rare look inside Tacoma’s immigration jail

Jul 11, 2017

President Trump’s vow to crack down on illegal immigration has focused renewed attention on the detention centers built to hold immigrants awaiting deportation.


The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is the fourth largest such Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detention facility in the country. 

Its capacity has more  than tripled since it was first built and the average length of time detainees wait for court hearings to decide their fates has increased dramatically in recent years, from one month to four months.

The increased wait times have also brought complaints from detainees about quality of food and care they receive inside.

KUOW’s Immigration Team got a rare look inside the federal facility, and brings you this snapshot of life at the Northwest Detention Center. 

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Dozens of murals hang on the walls at the Northwest Detention Center. They're painted by detainees, and the designs must be approved by staff.

Painting is considered a voluntary job. The artists are paid $1 per day for their work.

Read: Let's call your mama! What it's like to walk out of immigration jail in Tacoma

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

When a detainee comes down with the flu or has a questionable chest X-ray, they’re separated from the general population to prevent the spread of infection. They get sent to one of the four rooms in the medical unit for reverse isolation.

Air from inside this building gets blown out through the roof.

The detention center provides medical and mental health services through the ICE Health Service Corps. 

Read: Baby due in August. Dad deported. Mom in limbo

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Doors opening and closing, and keys jangling are constant sounds at the detention center.

There are usually two doors leading to an area. For security reasons, when one door is open, it has to be closed before the second one is opened.

Staff of the opposite gender are required to announce their presence as they enter a room.

Read: Deported after DUI? King County says that’s not fair

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

When someone is booked into ICE detention, their personal clothing, wallets and other possessions are stored in a locker. When released, detainees will typically wear these same clothes unless a family member sends new ones.

Some men walk out in construction clothes after being arrested at work; others walk out in the tattered jeans they wore during a journey from Central America to the Mexico border.

Read: A police force near Seattle considers 'sanctuary' and the money at stake

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Immigrant rights advocates routinely stage demonstrations and protests outside the Northwest Detention Center, including human barricades to block vans used to deport detainees.

The tent camp pictured above was set up in June to support a group of women reportedly on hunger strike inside the detention center. Hunger strikes are one way that detainees protest conditions.

In April, activists claimed hundreds of detainees joined a hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center.

ICE spokesperson Rose Riley said they closely monitor detainees who refuse meals or declare an intent to hunger strike.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” Riley wrote in an email to KUOW.  “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”

Read: For this Seattle doctor, hate is a public health issue

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

When family or friends visit a detainee, they sit on opposite sides of a glass window. No contact is allowed, although exceptions can be made if a detainee is about to be deported.

ICE deputy field director Bryan Wilcox also said they have, on very rare occasions, granted temporary release for some individuals.

“Usually we’ll put them on an ankle bracelet or something if they need to be at liberty to resolve a very traumatic thing, like a family death. But it’s a rarity,” Wilcox said.

Family visitation can be tricky. Immigrant advocates recommend people without legal status do not visit the detention center, and many heed this advice.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees are not required to work. If they choose to volunteer, the pay is $1 per day. A detention center in Colorado run by GEO Group is facing a class action lawsuit over its $1 per day wage. 

Wilcox said there are more people volunteering for work than there are things for them to do. Some detainees clean the facility, some work in the laundry room and some cut hair in the barber shop.

But the kitchen is where demand is highest.

“The benefit of working in the kitchen unofficially is that you tend to eat better,” Wilcox said.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Meals at the detention center aren’t served cafeteria style. Instead, meal trays are taken to the housing units and eaten in the dining area.

Each detainee gets three hot meals a day. Those who need special diets for medical or religious reasons must request them and get approval.

Some detainees have gone on hunger strikes to call attention to what they say is a lack of nutritious food and other conditions in the facility. During recent hunger strikes, detainees have also demanded higher pay for their work. 

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Life in detention moves slowly as detainees wait for a court hearing to decide their fate.

On average, detainees are held in Tacoma 124 days while their case is decided.  That’s a sharp increase from 2010, when the average length of stay was just 30 days.

Across the country, immigration courts are severely backlogged. Three judges conduct hearings at the Tacoma detention center and two more judges were added in 2015 to remotely hear cases by video.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees in the segregation unit are not allowed to mix with the general population. Some are there for disciplinary reasons.

You can also be sent to segregation if you’re being investigated for disciplinary violations or if you’re about to be transferred or released.

The unit can hold up to 40 people.

ICE deputy field director Wilcox said some detainees choose to be there. “They don’t want to be around folks. We call that protective custody,” Wilcox said.

Some gang members choose protective custody.

Most gang members at the Northwest Detention center identify as Sureños (Southerners). They can’t mix with Norteños. In many cases, Norteños will request to be transferred to another facility elsewhere in the country where they can live in the general population.

At the time of KUOW's visit, Wilcox said there weren't any gang members in the segregation unit. But in the past, gang members have stayed there up to one year. 

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees are given one hour per day of outdoor recreation. There’s a basketball court, weight training facilities and a small area to play soccer.

Wilcox said soccer is really popular. “Unfortunately, soccer is the source of a lot of runs to the ER for sprains and things like that,” Wilcox said.

All detainees, including people in segregation are given one hour per day of recreation.

When it’s cold or rainy, detainees can still take part in outdoor recreation. They’re given a denim jacket with a fleece lining to stay warm.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

When people enter detention, they’re given a uniform based on their security risk. There are four categories: low, medium-low, medium-high, and high.

Lower-risk detainees wear blue and green. Higher-risk detainees wear orange and red.

High-security detainees cannot be housed with those who wear blue and green.

The Tacoma Detention Center is also one of the few facilities in the country that can hold women with a high security risk. Female detainees wear yellow and pink uniforms. 

A detainee exercises in the recreation area within the segregation unit at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Many detainees pass the time with crafts or card games. White, yellow, lavender and green yarn is sold at the center’s commissary for $2.70 a skein. A pack of Aviator playing cards costs $1.80.

Paper crafts are also popular. People collect food packaging and colored paper then intricately fold it into picture frames, vases and other decorations.

Detainees, both male and female, often take their finished crafts with them when they leave.

Some fill small, clear garbage bags with as many crafts as they can fit.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees are grouped in housing units, separated by gender and security classification.  Most sleep in dormitory style bunk beds, some in small cells for up to four people.

Individuals can have some personal items in their area, including approved softbound books and photos no larger than 5 x 7 inches.

In detention, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. with an all-call for people to go to the medical clinic if needed. Lockup and lights out is at 11:30 p.m.

Many detainees in Tacoma were living in Washington or Oregon. But many are also transferred here from the Mexico border and other states.

The current population is 1,184 with 107 female detainees. The facility can hold up to 1,575.

Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer