Private detention center operator files suit against Washington state

Inside the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, also known as the Northwest Detention Center. Photo courtesy of La Resistencia, May 2022.
This image from May 2022 shows the inside of the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, also known as the Northwest Detention Center. (Courtesy: La Resistencia)



The GEO Group, the operator of a private detention center in Tacoma, has filed a lawsuit against Washington opposing new legislation that would regulate private detention facilities in the state. 

With the signing of House Bill 1470 into law in May, the Washington State Department of Health was given the authority to do unannounced inspections of private detention facilities and establish standards regarding health and safety for these facilities. 

That would include the Northwest ICE Processing Center, which GEO runs as a contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in Tacoma. 

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, alleges that House Bill 1470 discriminates against GEO and undermines the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, that the federal government has supreme authority over the land. GEO alleges that the law would undermine the federal government’s right to detain those involved in federal immigration proceedings by giving oversight power to the state, citing the legal precedent that “the activities of the Federal Government are free from regulation by any state,” set after the McCulloch v. Maryland supreme court decision in 1819, according to the complaint.

A spokesperson from GEO reiterated statements made in the lawsuit and said the company will not provide further comment while the case is pending.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office will represent the state in the matter, provided a written statement that, “GEO Group, a multi-billion dollar for-profit company operating in Washington, continues to assert that it’s above our state laws. That’s false.”

Hannah Woerner, staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services, said the legislation is meant to regulate facilities in Washington state.

“The law is clear that states have the power to protect the health and welfare of people detained within state borders, including the power to enforce health and safety laws against private prison contractors,” Woerner said.

The law was created to ensure private facilities provide detainees access to clean, healthy living conditions and nutritious food. Advocates have expressed numerous concerns over health and safety conditions in the Northwest ICE Processing Center. 

There have been a number of hunger strikes waged by detainees at the center in response to what they have said are poor conditions. 

“I can’t imagine the conditions that have produced so many hunger strikes over the years. I can’t imagine how much pain you have to be in to subject yourself to hunger strikes for days and months,” said Rep. Lilian Ortiz-Self.

Ortiz-Self, D, from the 21st district, was the bill’s primary sponsor. She said the law is meant to hold private detention facilities in Washington to the same standard as state detention facilities. 

In reference to a number of lawsuits GEO has filed, Ortiz-Self said, “I don’t understand why you would bring on a lawsuit or why you would not be transparent or fight something if you are already in compliance. I think actions speak louder than words.”

At this time, there are no court rulings that would halt Washington state from beginning to establish standards for private facilities.