Bill That Bans Private Prisons in Washington Wins Bipartisan Support

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Washington’s only private detention center is proposed for closure.

House Bill 1090 prohibits any person, business or government from operating private, for-profit detention facilities.

It recently passed in the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, and will receive a Senate vote in the coming weeks.

“When you have to report to (stakeholders) that profit, there is a conflict with meeting the needs of those that are incarcerated,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, who was prime sponsor of the bill. “And it's easy to abuse, because those who are incarcerated have the least voice of anybody.”

The Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center (NWIPC) in Tacoma currently is the only private detention facility in the state. Owned by the private company GEO, it has come under fire in the past for aggressive use of solitary confinement, and because detainees frequently stage hunger strikes to protest conditions. Under the bill, the facility can continue to operate until its contract with ICE ends in 2025.

Reports from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights show the NWIPC detains people in solitary confinement longer than any other dedicated ICE facility in the nation and frequently uses solitary confinement for those who are mentally ill — a violation of ICE’s own rules.

UW reports also found frequent complaints of detainees being served spoiled food, sometimes infested with worms or maggots, which triggered several of the hunger strikes.

A spokesman for the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association partially founded by GEO that represents companies in private detention and corrections, in a statement called the bill an, “ill-advised legislative effort.”

The statement defended treatment at the NWIPC, saying detainees receive “three nutritious daily meals catering to a range of dietary needs,” free legal counsel and get access to “modern recreation amenities.”

The statement also attacked the bill for the possibility of separating those detained in the facility from support networks.

“This bill would likely force those individuals to be transferred outside of the state, isolating them from family, friends and legal services,” the statement said.

In response, proponents of the bill explained the federal government would decide what happens to those detained in the facility when its contract ends in 2025.

It is also Rep. Ortiz-Self’s understanding that many, if not most, of the prisoners were not detained in Washington. Rep. Ortiz-Self said she believes those in the facility “would prefer humane treatment over proximity.”

As the bill heads toward a Senate vote, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, who has worked on similar legislation in the past, is optimistic about the bill's prospects in her chamber after speaking with fellow Senators.

“Is this the best use of public resources?” Saldaña asked. “To be paying private companies incentivized to keep their beds at capacity?”

Saldaña has another reason to be optimistic. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House, receiving a 76-21 vote, with almost half of all Republicans voting in favor.

Ortiz-Self thinks the repeated stories shared by detainees is why the bill received so much support from across the aisle.

“I think what touched everybody's heart regardless of which side they were on, were the stories of the lack of accountability, the lack of transparency, the number of hunger strikes and the number of abuses that continue to hit the news,” said Ortiz-Self.

The bill includes some exceptions for facilities providing treatment to juveniles and those providing services to a person who has been committed for involuntary mental health treatment.

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