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Partial video released of Tacoma immigration site’s use of ‘chemical agents’ on detainees

A group of people standing behind a teal-colored sign that reads, "End Detention, End Deportation," in red letters.
Grace Deng
Washington State Standard
Advocates call for the closure of Northwest ICE Processing Center outside of ICE’s Seattle field office. Feb. 1, 2024.

On Feb. 1, 2023, Jemal Houston-Brown woke up in his cell at a federal immigration detention site in Tacoma to the sound of screaming. It was around 3 a.m. and guards had released chemical agents in a unit directly below his.

“Some [detainees] clawed windows, desperate to escape,” Houston-Brown said. “I struggled to breathe.”

The ventilation system between the two units was left running, Houston-Brown said. He called 911 and the public defenders’ office using a phone in the unit, begging for help. Houston-Brown said the 911 call did not go through and the public defenders’ office said they didn’t know what they could do.

Chemical agents – a class of substances sometimes referred to as tear gas – were released to subdue a protest happening over confiscated razor blades, an ICE spokesperson said.The facility is run by The GEO Group, a private company contracted with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Houston-Brown shared his story in front of a Seattle ICE field office on Thursday, exactly one year after the incident — one ofover 70 uses of force documented by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights.

A man in a gray shirt and glasses with his hair pulled back in front of a concrete pillar.
Grace Deng
Washington State Standard
Jemal Houston-Brown, who was detained at NWIPC for about two years, stands outside of a building that houses ICE’s field office in Seattle. Feb. 1, 2024.

Experts and advocates were gathered outside of the building to announce the release of apartial video taken of the Feb. 1 incident, which was obtained through a July 2023 complaint filed in Seattle federal district court by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project over a public records request the federal government failed to fulfill. Officials have yet to produce every record responsive to the organization’s request.

Northwest ICE Processing Center is the only for-profit federal detention center in Washington and one of the largest in the country, with a capacity for about 1,575 people. From mid-2021 to 2022, the facility had an average population of 374 detainees, according to a May 2023 report from the Department of Homeland Security.

In a statement, a GEO spokesperson said “we take the use of chemical agents with the utmost seriousness, and our staff follow strict federal standards that govern their use.” ICE said officials authorized “non-lethal use of force” after “careful consideration.”

“A number of detainees housed at the NWIPC have been convicted of serious crimes, such as assault, child exploitation, and murder. The lawful removal of these noncitizens should not be impeded either by the dangerous actions of any detainees or inaccurate information free of context,” an ICE spokesperson said.

‘As if they were going to war’

In the 40-minute-long video, guards are seen waiting to enter Unit F4, where four men were refusing to move in protest, according to ICE records obtained by UW’s Center for Human Rights.

“SEG, SEG, SEG! It’s a three-man escort!” one person shouts, using common prison slang to refer to a solitary confinement unit, or “Segregated Housing Unit.”

Northwest ICE Processing Center uses solitary confinement more than any other ICE facility, according to Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, director of UW’s Center for Human Rights. GEO Group and ICE maintain that detention centers are not prisons.

Guards can be seen shouting to “get on the ground” while wearing riot gear and carrying rifles. The four detainees walk down a set of stairs as over a dozen guards surround them. Guards put a hood on at least one detainee and zip-tie handcuffs.

“Stop resisting,” a guard says. “I’m not resisting,” he replies. “Stop resisting,” the guard says again. The video does not show a clear view of the detainee as he is surrounded by guards.

People can be heard coughing heavily. Detainees and guards’ faces are blurred out and the audio cuts out intermittently.

“It’s as if they were going to war,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, who leads La Resistencia, a group calling for the facility’s closure. “We don’t see the need at all to have gassed them. There is absolutely no excuse to send a SWAT team.”

At least five people who were detained at Northwest ICE Processing Center during the Feb. 2023 incident are still there today, said Villalpando, who keeps in close contact with detainees in the facility.

“They feel there should at least be an apology,” Villalpando said.

Houston-Brown said medical neglect in the facility exacerbated the health effects of the gas for him. After his release in June 2023, a doctor sent him to critical care for six days.

“My lungs suffered damage from the gas, causing constant chest pain and coughing. My doctor couldn’t believe I did not die in detention,” Houston-Brown said, adding that his liver and kidney were in near-failure.

ICE and GEO said in separate statements that medical staff cleared detainees of all injuries immediately following the incident.

The battle over records

According to Villalpando, La Resistencia reached out to UW’s Center for Human Rights and asked them to file a public records request for video and other documentation of the Feb. 1 incident because of their expertise. The center did not hear back, so they asked Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to file a request, said Matt Adams, the organization’s legal director.

When Northwest Immigrant Rights Project did not hear back, they filed a complaint in federal court. The partial video is the first video released as part of the request.

“We still haven’t received the bulk of the video,” said Adams.

Court documents filed by ICE say they have processed and released 100 minutes of video. There are approximately 12 hours of video documentation that must be released under the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s request, the agency says in court filings.

“ICE is not trying to hide anything about what happened during the incident in question,” the agency said in a Jan. 29 status report.

Houston-Brown, who has filed a grievance signed by 26 other detainees against ICE over the incident, said he knows there is a video record showing how badly the gas affected him.

“I got within five feet from the door – from outside the door – and I collapsed,” Houston-Brown said. “Get the video footage of the breezeway right outside the door. You can clearly see me laying on the ground and a guard telling me to get up. I attempted to get up three times and I couldn’t get back on my feet.”

U.S. District Judge Kymberly Evanson on Nov. 16, 2023, ordered the Department of Homeland Security to produce all records by Jan. 31. However, federal officials are requesting an extension from Evanson until April 12, citing technical difficulties that they say are slowing efforts to blur faces to ensure privacy of individuals.

“The video files ICE Processing received were so degraded, and more degraded than anticipated, that the software was not able to function properly and track faces appropriately,” the filing said.

A Feb. 6 court hearing is scheduled to discuss the status of the case.

Villalpando said Washington’s congressional delegation should get involved in helping expedite the public records process and should hold a hearing to investigate the incident.

Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegationhave introduced legislationto improve conditions in ICE facilities. But Villalpando said it’s “not enough to introduce a bill that goes nowhere.” State lawmakers have attempted to both close the facility and bring more oversight to it, but have been met with legal challenges from GEO.

“We will continue fighting and please don’t forget: Every February 1, we’re gonna keep coming back until that place is shut down,” Villalpando said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence.

Grace Deng is a reporter at the Washington State Standard. Born and raised in Snohomish County, Grace graduated from Northwestern University in June 2023.