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SUBSTANDARD food. Exorbitant commissary prices. Limited access to legal representation. At least one attempted suicide. And cheap labor that pays $1 a day.

No amount of public-relations savvy can cover up the trail of troubling stories coming out of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where about 1,300 detainees await possible deportation for civil violations, such as overstaying their visas and entering the country illegally.

Since 2005, GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies, has contracted with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to run the center.

Taxpayers should question whether it’s appropriate to subsidize a contractor that has generated record profits amid reports nonviolent detainees are subject to conditions more befitting of serious criminals.

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In March, several hundred Tacoma center detainees staged a hunger strike to bring attention to their struggle.

At one point during the two-month protest, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services filed a lawsuit against immigration officials alleging GEO correction officers retaliated against nearly 20 protesters by placing them in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Advocates withdrew the suit on May 12 after authorities released the detainees back to the general population.

Tone-deaf ICE authorities give GEO glowing reviews, even as attorneys complain of difficulty meeting with their clients and poor phone connections among a host of other issues.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, was so troubled by what he saw during a March visit to the center, he responded by introducing the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act. Fellow Washington Democratic U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina and Rick Larsen of Everett are co-sponsors.

The bill would create a new congressional committee to provide more oversight of detention centers nationwide, including independent, unannounced audits. The measure also proposes an end to the federal government’s ridiculous “bed mandate,” which requires that 34,000 detention beds are occupied each night. To meet that quota, immigration officials round up people who are in the U.S. illegally, often separating them from their families. Taxpayers pay. GEO charges a day rate of $100.65 per detainee — and a discounted rate of $62.52 for each bed in excess of 1,181.

Smith’s bill is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough.

GEO’s federal contract to operate ICE’s Tacoma center expires on Oct. 23.

Though detention centers are necessary and federal officials promise they have addressed some of the detainees’ concerns, the debate must continue on the cost effectiveness and consequences of allowing profit-driven businesses to run federal prisons without stronger oversight.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).