The stories coming from inside the Northwest Detention Center are alarming.
A Ukrainian woman reported being harassed, with sexual comments making her feel “extremely uncomfortable.” Another detainee claimed to have been touched inappropriately. “I feel assaulted,” the immigrant wrote. A Honduran man said he was raped and his calls for an investigation disregarded.
These accounts are not outliers. A recent University of Washington Center for Human Rights found that claims of sexual abuse at the Tacoma facility often go ignored or are not properly investigated.
The report is the latest example of a broken system that fails to protect those in custody. Congress must enact legislation — championed by U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal, both D-Wash. — that limits the number of immigrant detentions and ensures increased transparency and oversight of detention facilities.
Immigrants held in federal custody are waiting for their cases to be resolved and may or may not be guilty of breaking any law.
The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards and corporate policies by detention center operator The Geo Group are supposed to protect detainees. Yet, they remain vulnerable to abuse, and victims can expect little to no accountability, researchers found.
“There are so many multiple overlapping standards, and there’s multiple hotlines, and there’s multiple people they’re supposed to be reported to. That gets mistaken for rigor, for a seriousness of process,” said Angelina Godoy, director of the Center for Human Rights.
Through state and federal records requests, researchers found 63 reports of sexual assault or abuse over a roughly seven-year period at the Northwest Detention Center, though some reports mentioned multiple incidents. Alleged rape or harassment of immigrants happened at the hands of GEO officers, health providers and other detainees.
In many cases, investigations of claims found to be substantiated were apparently truncated by the deportation of witnesses, perpetrators or victims, according to the report.
What researchers found is disturbing enough, but what they couldn’t find points to an even greater problem.
ICE is required to enter any report of abuse into its Significant Event Notification database within 24 hours. But, of 20 incidents reported using the detention center’s grievance system, for example, ICE documented only two. Some calls to one of the agency’s own hotlines went unrecorded in the SEN system.
This lack of thorough documentation makes a full accounting of sexual-abuse incidents impossible. Meanwhile, required post-incident reviews that would allow the kind of institutional learning that could help prevention is almost nonexistent, Godoy said.
In a statement, The Geo Group said it strongly rejected the report’s claims. “We take all allegations of sexual assault with the utmost seriousness and mandate zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” a spokesperson said.
Although the Northwest Detention Center has faced its share of criticism by human-rights activists and faces closure after action this year by the Legislature, allegations of poor conditions and immigrant abuse are not limited to one for-profit immigration detention center.
“The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General has repeatedly found substandard conditions at these detention centers and a failure by ICE to make sufficient improvements,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who called the report’s findings abhorrent but unsurprising. “The new report underscores the need for drastic reforms to our immigration detention system.”
To that end, Smith and Jayapal, have proposed the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which would end the use of mandatory detention, phase out the use of private prisons and county jails for immigration detention, improve standards and require random spot checks of all facilities.
Lawmakers must pay attention. Immigration detention is necessary in some cases, but it is unconscionable to perpetuate a low-accountability system where a vulnerable population is a captive target for abuse.
It’s time to stop looking the other way.