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Company plans expansion of Northwest Detention Center, but no new beds

The owner of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma plans to expand the immigrant detention facility to add more courtrooms, a training building, administrative offices and other spaces, according to court documents.

The planned additions, disclosed this month in a federal dispute over conditions of the proposal, would be the facility’s first expansion since 2011. Unlike the detention center’s three prior expansions, the project would not add more beds or otherwise increase the facility’s 1,575-person capacity.

Tacoma officials are aware of the expansion plans laid out in the court filings, but have not received a land-use application, a city spokeswoman said. The proposal would face a more complicated approval process under new zoning rules City Council members passed last year.

The expansion plans were put forth by the GEO Group, the Florida-based company that owns and runs the detention center under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

"GEO has developed the outlined plans in response to the needs of the federal government as well as to address program needs identified by advocates," a company spokesman confirmed in a statement. "These changes do not envision additional bed space, but rather are driven by the need for additional space for service delivery."

The plan includes new "multipurpose spaces" for detainees to congregate for activities, areas for "support staff" and "medical support," a parking garage and additional parking spaces. They would add to the detention center’s existing 120,500-square-foot complex on Tacoma’s tideflats.

A GEO official said in one court document that the additions were "requested by ICE" to "meet the needs" of the enforcement agency. An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment.

GEO has hired local architectural and construction firms to begin planning the additions, court filings say.

But Tacoma’s new zoning regulations for correctional and detention facilities would make it harder for the detention center to expand.

The rules require GEO to receive a conditional use permit, rather than a simple building permit, from the city. The conditional use permit comes with a more stringent review process and requires the company to spend more money up front on design and planning.

GEO is fighting in federal court to have the rules overturned. The company argues the regulations are unconstitutional and were driven by city officials’ "animosity towards current federal immigration policy." City officials say the rules are designed to preserve valuable land in the tideflats for projects that are more beneficial to the economy than correctional or detention facilities.

Since it opened in 2004, the Northwest Detention Center has grown into one of the nation’s largest holding spaces for people facing deportation. Over the course of three expansions — in 2006, 2008 and 2011 — the detention center’s capacity tripled from 500 detainees to more than 1,500.

In recent years, the detention center has been the site of hunger strikes by detainees and protests by activists opposed to the immigration policies of President Donald Trump.

The latest expansion plans were foreshadowed in a 2017 letter by Thomas Homan, then acting director of ICE, to Tacoma officials. Homan said a potential future expansion could benefit detainees by adding space for “enhanced medical and dental services,” dining and dormitory spaces, attorney-client meeting rooms, immigration courtrooms and judges’ chambers. Only some of those elements appear in the latest plans.

A spokeswoman for the federal immigration judicial system could not immediately say whether judges would be available to preside over additional immigration courtrooms in Tacoma, or whether the expansion could help ease a backlog of 770 cases of people held at the Northwest Detention Center.

As part of the project, GEO would make unspecified changes to "improve public safety" on undeveloped land where protesters often gather and where they set up an encampment last year. The land, outside the detention center’s gates, is next to railroad tracks.

GEO said city officials asked them to make the alterations. A city spokeswoman said officials have "voiced concerns" to GEO and federal authorities that some activities near the tracks "create a public safety risk."

"The City has encouraged GEO and the federal authorities to make efforts to reduce those risks," the spokeswoman said.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.