Detainees walk toward the outdoor recreation area on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma. 
    Slideshow Icon 8 slides
Enlarge Icon
Detainees walk toward the outdoor recreation area on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Photos: Inside Tacoma's immigrant lockup

The Northwest Detention Center has a new name: the Northwest ICE Processing Center.

In over 15 years of existence, it’s been the site of hunger strikes, allegations of misconduct, a lawsuit over detainee wages, and most recently an attack that turned deadly.

Nathalie Asher is the new field office director. She opened doors to reporters this week. Inside the facility, past guards, metal detectors, and sally ports (an entryway where one door has to close before the next opens) was the world of immigration detention.

The center can hold 1,575 individuals but Asher said the population was closer to 1,300. Most detainees are men and while 30% are from Mexico, the second largest nationality represented come from India.

Male detainees are shown in one of the housing units on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Enlarge Icon
Male detainees are shown in one of the housing units on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Detainees wear uniforms of varying colors depending on their security risk. Yellow and pink for the women, with blue, orange, green, and red for the men.

There’s a law library, a barbershop, a health center, and an outdoor area with a small soccer field. Asher says a goal in opening the detention centers doors is to increase transparency.

The Tacoma center has never housed children or families, she said.

And when it comes to enforcement she said, “I don't make the laws. That's on Congress. If they don't like what we are doing, then change the laws.”

In July, a 69-year old man Willem Van Spronsen independently attempted an attack on the Northwest Detention Center. He was shot and killed by officers from the Tacoma Police Department. The investigation is still pending.

For Asher, the incident was jarring.

“There's this current climate to encourage taking on and challenging officers and thwarting arrest,” she said.

“I've never seen that before. My officers are doing a job. They're carrying out federal laws, doing what they have taken charge to do. They are being unfairly vilified. That's what’s disheartening to me. That's what hurts.”

A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
Enlarge Icon
A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
A ceiling panel shows blue sky and clouds in the medical unit area on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Enlarge Icon
A ceiling panel shows blue sky and clouds in the medical unit area on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Later on the tour, inside a housing pod with several dozen detained men, one man got on the floor and began yelling beneath the door.

“Can you believe this? In the USA, we are being held on a civil matter,” he yelled.

Media was not allowed to interview any detainees during the tour so we don’t know his name. As we were ushered out by immigration officials, he began pounding on the door.

“They tell us we are not being detained but we are here against our free will. Don't you want to hear the truth?” he continued.

As winter nears, Asher said she worries about transporting immigrants through the snowy mountain passes of Washington state.

They used to go by plane, but in April, King County Airport ended its relationship with ICE Air to comply with local sanctuary policies. Now the Yakima Air Field in Central Washington is being used to transport undocumented immigrants from the border to the detention center and back.

A detainee stands while waiting for a door to unlock on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Enlarge Icon
A detainee stands while waiting for a door to unlock on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer