The System Explained

The Detention System in Tacoma

ICE operates the US adult and family migrant detention system. There are more than 200 detention centers in operation on any given day, and in FY2019 the Average Daily Population in detention was more than 45,000. The NWDC in Tacoma is the fifth biggest detention center. It has capacity to hold 1575 people, and usually is about 90% full. It is a for-profit detention center.

But, the problem with detention is detention, not profit from detention. While we get outraged that this system involves profit from human caging, we think it’s important to understand this system beyond just the profit involved. There are different levels of government involved, and different companies making money here in different ways.

The whole thing is complicated, dehumanizing, and messed up beyond repair. We want to uproot the entire system from Tacoma, by shutting down NWDC. Here we map out the economic relations that sustain detention in Tacoma, so we can all see what it is we are uprooting.

The Detention Contract:

When Congress decides on the budget, they allocate a certain amount to ICE to contract out for a certain amount of bed space. In the FY2020 budget request that ICE made, they said they wanted to get money to detain 2077 people in the Seattle Field Office’s region. That would increase the number of people detained here by about 52.5%!

Even though this system of human caging is all contracted through ICE, most of ICE’s detention beds (more than 70% in 2019) are in privately owned or operated detention centers, including the NWDC.  

In Tacoma, ICE pays vulture-in-chief GEO Group to confine migrants on its behalf at a sliding rate that averages to about $109/person/per night. This payment is for the detention space, detention services, and also for GEO Group to transport detained people throughout Washington and Oregon. In 2018 GEO brought in $2.3 billion in revenue, 20% of that from ICE contracts. In Tacoma, GEO’s FY2018 revenue was over $71 million. 

The Prison: 

Who is involved in running the NWDC?

ICE: NWDC is like most ICE detention centers: it is not run by ICE, and the detention happens through contracts with ICE. But, ICE officers work in the detention center, they make decisions on people’s cases (such as granting parole or bond), organize deportations from the detention center, and the entire center is run on behalf of ICE. In NWDC, ICE Health Services Corps provides the healthcare.

DOJ: ICE detention centers are for holding people while they are going through deportation proceedings in the DOJ courts. The Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) runs the immigration courts, including the Tacoma Immigration Court inside the NWDC. There are three full-time immigration judges in Tacoma, plus a courtroom with a video link for remote judges.

GEO Group: The NWDC in Tacoma is owned and operated by vulture-in-chief, GEO Group, which is an international private prison company. In NWDC, GEO is in charge of keeping people confined, controlling their movements in the facility, maintaining order, and collecting intelligence on detained people. The NWDC is run by GEO as a medium security prison. A lot of GEO Group’s wealth is wrapped up in its ownership of big facilities like NWDC. According to the Pierce County Accessor-Treasurer, in 2018, the property was worth $63.7million and GEO owed over $1 million in taxes that year.

Detained labor: NWDC runs on a particular division of labor: while GEO guards are in charge of security and administrative roles, detained people do most of the non-security related labor to keep the facility running: laundry, food preparation and service, janitorial work, and more. Under this “Voluntary Work Program”, GEO and ICE pay those workers $1 a day. For example, in 2016, an average of 432 detained people a day worked in NWDC, and this supplemented GEO’s revenue by almost 5%. GEO makes most of its money from ICE, but it also profits from the labor of people detained, many of them reporting that they felt coerced to work. There are lawsuits ongoing right now in Washington and Colorado about this issue.

The Roundup: 

Who puts people into the NWDC?

ICE: ICE arrests people in the US interior, and also gets people who are transferred from local jails and prisons, and then detains those people in immigration detention centers all over the US.  In FY2018, ICE made 158,581 administrative arrests in the US interior.

CBP: ICE receives people that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has arrested and held temporarily near the border. In FY 2018, CBP apprehended 404,182 people. Those who were not quickly released were transferred to ICE for detention. In 2019, more than half of the people detained in Tacoma were transferred north from other facilities near the US-Mexico border. 

Department of Corrections: In 2019, Washignton passed the Keep Washington Working Act (KWWA), which prevents most law enforcement and correctional agencies from notifying ICE when they have a non-citizen in custody. The Washington State Department of Corrections is the exception: this agency continues to actively turn people over to ICE custody.

Local sheriff and police: Some local police departments (for example, Marysville police) detain non-citizens solely to turn them over to ICE, despite the KWWA, which makes this illegal. Local efforts to hold police departments accountable to KWWA are crucial.

Greyhound: In Spokane, WA, Greyhound cooperates with CBP officers, using their station and buses to identify and arrest deportable people. People arrested on a Greyhound in Spokane are transferred to the NWDC. This partnership between Greyhound and CBP is echoed in other small US cities like Rochester, NY and Bakersfield, CA.

Tech Firms and Database Subscriptions: Tech giants Amazon and Palantir provide ICE with cloud computing, facial recognition technology, and the massive Investigative Case Management database system. Other private companies sell database subscriptions to ICE, notably Thomas Reuters’ data product CLEAR. The Washington State Department of Licensing was sharing personal identifying information with ICE on request and through ICE’s subscription to their databases until 2018 – and DOL information could still be available to ICE through third party and private databases. This tech allows ICE to more efficiently find and arrest people who are deportable – and to keep tabs on all non-citizens. As fewer and fewer law enforcement agencies collaborate with ICE in feeding people into ICE custody, the development of its digital surveillance and database systems will become even more important for ICE to detect and arrest people.

The Vultures:

Who else is taking a cut in this detention scheme?

These private companies make money off people who are detained because they are detained. All these companies extract fees from the people who are detained or their loved ones. Detained folks are deprived of things they need – like contact with their loved ones, coffee, soap — and then they pay steep prices for these things in the detention center. This is how things work in the US prison system too.

Keefe Group: This company provides the meals in NWDC (which are bland, monotonous, and in summer and autumn 2019 have reportedly been invested with maggots or worms). It also provides the commissary store at the detention center. Detained people buy supplemental food and hygiene products from the commissary despite steep prices. People pay because they need things.

Access Corrections: part of the Keefe Group, this company provides accounting for those detained at NWDC. Family members and loved ones can put money on the account of detained people so that they can buy things in the commissary. There is always a handling fee charged for putting money on someone’s books, and people pay because they want their loved one to have enough food and soap.

Telmate: This company provides the phone, video chat, email and tablet services in the detention center. As is standard across the prison telecommunications industry, people who are detained and their loved ones pay exorbitant rates to use these services. Telmate pays some of that money out to GEO Group as a kickback. People pay because they need to be able to talk to their attorneys and their loved ones. Telmate also collects data and information about the people who use its phone and video systems, and then sells it to various law enforcement agencies. The Telmate contract in Tacoma is subcontracted through another prison telecommunications company, Talton.

Libre by Nexus and the bond companies: Nationwide, immigration bonds are granted a little bit less than half the time a bond hearing is held. Immigration bonds atend to be set higher in Tacoma than in the rest of the US. And, unlike in the bail bond system for jails, immigration bond companies require full payment or collateral upfront.  These companies charge exorbitant interest and fees to people so they can pay their bonds and be released from NWDC. Libre by Nexus in particular rents people ankle bracelets for up to $475 per month as a security on the immigration bond. This company has been investigated and sued for use of fraudulent and abusive tactics. People pay because they need their loved ones to be freed.

The Financial Channels:

What about big banks, Wall Street, and divestment?

Publicly traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) like GEO Group regard the properties they own like financial products that they will collect rent and interest on. Shareholders get dividends based on the rent, and want to see that rent from the company’s properties keeps on growing. Right now GEO is proposing to expand some of the parking lots, courts, offices, and recreation areas at the NWDC. This would make the property worth more, and could help them raise the rent they charge ICE. That just contributes to shareholder value. The City of Tacoma has yet to take a position on this expansion, even though it would violate Tacoma’s permanent land use regulations. We say, don’t expand the detention center: shut it down. 

As a REIT, GEO’s wealth is tied up in property and they don’t keep a lot of cash. They need access to credit and debt in order to keep growing and expanding their business. In their 2018 annual report, GEO reported $788 million in borrowing under term loans and $490.8 million borrowed under a revolving credit line underwritten by a group of big banks like JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, and Citibank. Because many big banks are involved in the detention business, activists have put pressure on them to divest, and most have now said they will stop lending money to GEO when current loans and credit facilities expire. But, since 100% of the prison contracts are paid for by taxpayer dollars, there is a limit to how much private prison divestment can actually impact this system: the cash flow from ICE and other government entities will keep on coming. GEO uses credit and debt from big banks to expand its facilities and buy up other prison businesses, but it has access to other credit options too. They have issued $1.45 billion in corporate bonds, and borrowed hundreds of millions in municipal bonds. For example, NWDC was built and renovated with $121 million in municipal bonds issued by Washington Economic Development Finance Authority! 

Big banks divesting from private prisons puts pressure on the industry, but it is not going to uproot the NWDC or ICE detention. The only way to pull the plug on detention in Tacoma is to cancel the contracts and shut the center down.

The Enablers: 

Who locally is enabling the NWDC and ICE’s human caging scheme in Tacoma?

The Tacoma Fire Department has pledged (in a Memorandum of Understanding with GEO Group) personnel support and transportation vehicles with “restraints, handcuffs, belly chains and leg irons” in the event of labor strikes or evacuation! 

The Tacoma Police Department has arrested and even shot and killed protesters at the facility. On a regular basis, they block the streets and intimidate family members who are trying to visit their loved ones held in the NWDC. The police department is also regularly called to the detention center for emergency response.  

Swift Air, the primary airline that ICE Air contracts with to deport people. Swift Air currently operates deportation flights out of Yakima Airport.

The Yakima Airport (and until recently, the King County International Airport) hosts weekly deportation flights as well as flights of asylum-seekers being brought to the NWDC after arriving at the US Mexico Border. GEO Group transports people between Yakima Airport and the NWDC.

Washington Economic Development Finance Authority (WEDFA) has acted as the financial conduit for GEO Group to receive financing for its detention center construction, renovation and construction in Tacoma – to the tune of $121 million. If GEO Group wants to make improvements and expansions in Tacoma, they will need funding again and it could be facilitated through WEDFA.