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ICE detention center in Tacoma among those with the highest number of deaths

A vigil at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma for Charles Leo Daniel, who died earlier this month at the facility and who was held in solitary confinement for possibly close to 4 years.
Lilly Ana Fowler
A vigil at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma for Charles Leo Daniel, who died earlier this month at the facility and who was held in solitary confinement for possibly close to 4 years.

The Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Tacoma has one of the worst track records in the country as far as the number of deaths in custody.

And according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Oversight, and Physicians for Human Rights, those deaths could have likely been prevented.

At least 70 detained immigrants have died in ICE custody across the country since 2017. Two of those deaths happened at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.

Out of the dozens of deaths, at least 14 people died by suicide, nine people died as a result of COVID-19, and 15 died as a result of cardiovascular disease, according to the new, 76-page report. ICE has failed to disclose a cause of death for 13 of the 68 deceased individuals.

For the report, over several years, researchers reviewed thousands of pages of documents. The documents came from the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, state public records and lawsuits. The authors of the report then zeroed in on the deaths of 52 people in detention from 2017 to 2021.

The authors of the report concluded that systemic failures in medical and mental health care in ICE detention led to otherwise preventable deaths. Specifically, the report details how 49 of the 52 deaths, or 95 percent, were preventable if appropriate care had been provided. Researchers found medical staff often made incorrect or incomplete diagnoses and provided inadequate or untimely treatment.

Medical staff, for example, often ignored key symptoms, failed to provide patients with the opportunity to be seen by a physician, did not order appropriate diagnostic tests, and even threatened disciplinary action for filing repeated medical requests.

The report also detailed how people in detention have repeatedly threatened suicide, including those in solitary confinement. One of the detainees who died by suicide was a 39-year-old man from Russia who was held at the ICE detention center in Tacoma.

Mergensana Amar died by suicide in 2018 after ICE officers told him that he would be deported back to Russia. Although he exhibited warning signs of suicidal ideation, ICE failed to provide sufficient mental health support, the report said. Researchers also note that the agency should have informed Amar that he could further appeal his case.

“Amar’s case underscores how failure to provide mental health support, and systemic barriers to justice, can lead to preventable death, “ the report concluded.

ICE currently detains close to 40,000 people, on average, each day in about 130 detention facilities across the country. Most of the facilities are owned or operated by private prison companies.

The Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, for example, is run by GEO Group, a private prison company based in Florida. According to the report, in 2022, GEO made $1.05 billion in revenue from ICE contracts.

This hasn’t always been the norm. The report notes that in the 1980s, fewer than 2,000 people were held in immigration detention nationwide.

The authors of the report also said ICE detention facilities have often failed to provide interpretation and translation services to detained people who do not speak English.

The federal agency also did not take basic precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as providing detainees with masks when no vaccine existed, leading to the spreading of the virus. In fact, ICE continued transferring people from facilities with known COVID-19 outbreaks.

ICE rarely penalized detention facilities that fail to keep detainees safe. Researchers said no facility they studied had ever lost a contract after a detainee death, even when multiple violations of detention standards were found. And even when ICE does issue financial penalties, those penalties have little impact on the large private prison companies running the facilities.

Researchers conclude that ICE should begin to phase out the immigration detention system across the country and invest in community-based social services instead.

As a start, researchers are calling on the federal government to issue a directive that would ensure the release of people with medical and mental health vulnerabilities. The authors also note that ICE should release people who have won their immigration cases instead of appealing the decision. And ICE should prohibit solitary confinement.

The last person who died at the ICE facility in Tacoma — Charles Leo Daniel— was held in solitary confinement for close to four years. Daniel died on March 7 of this year in solitary confinement, even though he was diagnosed with many medical and psychiatric issues.

"Experts have repeatedly said that solitary confinement is obviously not the right thing to do when somebody is in psychological distress. Indeed, it can exacerbate and heighten the likelihood of suicide," said Eunice Cho, one of the coauthors of the report and a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project.

"The ultimate tragedy, of course," the authors concluded, "is that none of these people needed to be detained...Although this report focuses on death, tens of thousands of people continue to face lasting medical and psychological consequences as a result of immigration detention each day.”

David Yost, a spokesperson for ICE, declined to provide comment when asked about the report.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to