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UW researchers find pattern of Tacoma ICE facility using chemical agents, force against detainees

A close shot of a detainee sitting on a bunk holding their hand to their face.
Ted S. Warren
In this file photo, taken June 21, 2017, a detainee sits on a bunk in a women's area at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

A new report by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights documents the use of pepper spray and physical force used against immigrants detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. Researchers said that includes detainees engaged in peaceful protest and those with a history of mental illness.

"It became clear that there really were patterns of escalating cycles of uses of force against some specific individuals about whom we were really concerned. And one of those categories was folks facing mental illness," Angelina Godoy, the research center's director, said in a recent interview.

In 2020, for example, a guard reportedly placed his knee on a detainee’s neck, prompting others to chant "Black Lives Matter" and “get your knee off his neck.” The man from Sudan told Tacoma police that guards had twisted back his arms and shoulders to the point where he lost feeling in them. He was eventually placed on suicide watch and taken to a psychiatric facility. He said he would rather die than continue to be held at the detention facility.

One year later, the man reportedly threatened suicide, tying his bedsheets together and attaching them to his upper bunk.

Godoy said detainees cannot directly call 911 from inside the detention facility and have almost no way of responding to abuse.

Altogether the report details 70 incidents from 2015 to 2023 where force was used at the ICE facility in Tacoma. Over the last seven years, that translates to, on average, one incident of force at the facility each month, researchers said.

Researchers primarily relied on government documents, but also on Tacoma police reports, court records, and reports from the activist group La Resistencia to document the uses of force. Even so, researchers point out the records they relied on are incomplete because the agency often fails to either document the incident, or comply with public records laws. The UW Center for Human Rights has pursued litigation against the agency to obtain documents in 28 different cases.

In another incident in 2018, involving a peaceful protest, more than 100 detainees at the ICE detention center in Tacoma went on a hunger strike.

Jesus Chavez testified in court that during the strike he was punched with a closed fist, and that other hunger strikers were choked and thrown against walls. Chavez also said officials refused to take him to the hospital, even though doctors recommended it, but simply gave him painkillers.

"It is inappropriate for people who are exercising their right to free speech to be greeted by violence as a response," Godoy said.

Detainees at the ICE facility in Tacoma are there because they are waiting for the outcomes of their immigration proceedings — not because they’ve been charged with a crime.

Efforts to more closely monitor the facility, or shut it down altogether, have been challenged in court. Anew law authorizes the state Department of Health to inspect the ICE facility in Tacoma on a regular basis, but GEO Group — the private prison company that runs the facility — promptly sued the state over the legislation.

And in 2021, Washington state bannedprivate prisons. After passing the new law, lawmakers expected the facility to close by 2025. However, after a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling involving a similar California law, the state now says the detention center won’t be shutting down after all.

In a statement, David Yost, a spokesperson for ICE, said the agency uses non-lethal force only when absolutely necessary, and that detainees are then seen by medical staff as soon as possible. He also said ICE does not retaliate against hunger strikers but monitors them.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Maru Mora Villalpando of La Resistencia questioned the validity of for-profit prisons, including the ICE detention center in Tacoma. The facility has room for nearly 1,600 detainees, and ICE pays GEO Group for the bed space whether or not it’s used.

“Are we OK with caging human beings, especially for profit?” Mora Villalpando said.

She also reminded the public that the facility is built on land that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed hazardous – a Superfund site.

“The entire system is built so no one knows anything because they don’t want to be accountable to anyone,” she said.

“Once the truth is shining on this place, people get outraged, and they fight.”

Godoy, who was also at the press conference, pointed to a previous report by the UW Center for Human Rights that showed the ICE detention center in Tacoma keeps detainees in solitary confinement longer than any other ICE facility in the country.

Updated: August 16, 2023 at 4:14 PM PDT
Added information from Wednesday's press conference.
Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to