Just a few days after detainees at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington ended their nearly 2-month hunger strike, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced legislation that would improve standards and living conditions in detention centers across the country.
The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, introduced May 8, would change federal law to ensure that detention center standards are federally regulated and created by a committee that includes stakeholders such as local governments, medical experts and organizations that advocate for undocumented immigrants. Currently, all standards at detention facilities are created and enforced by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“After visiting the NWDC to speak with detainees on hunger strike, it was clear that more enforceable standards were necessary,” Rep. Smith said. “This legislation is focused on improving living conditions for detainees and increasing oversight and transparency of the treatment of detainees.”
The new legislation would also apply to privately run for-profit prisons such as those run by GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – both organizations have come under major scrutiny for their treatment of detainees.
GEO Group and CCA have contracts with ICE, and failure to comply with detention standards could result in “meaningful financial penalties,” such as cancellation of agreements and contracts.
The legislation also would require unannounced audits and encourage the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to consider alternatives to detention that provide a more humane alternative for people in ICE’s custody.
The proposed bill places limits on solitary confinement, shackling and strip searches, and assures that detainees will not face retaliation for filing complaints or grievances or organizing peaceful demonstrations. It also mandates that detainees have access to telephones and legal representation free of charge, and that the rates for calls to others be reasonable.
It addresses detainee transfers by requiring prior notice to detainees, their families and to legal counsel before they are transferred.
Northwest Detention Center is one of the largest immigration prisons on the West Coast. After the hunger strike and work stoppage got underway, ICE retaliated, threatening to force feed the detainees and placed at least 20 in solitary confinement.
The action received national and international public attention and the ACLU and Columbia Legal Service filed a federal lawsuit. The hunger strikers were immediately released after the suit was filed — vindicating the First Amendment rights of the hunger strikers. It put ICE on notice that peaceful protests cannot be suppressed without legal consequences.
Jose Moreno is a former inmate who helped organize the hunger strike before being released on bond. He’s continued to support the detainees inside. When he heard that the hunger strike ended he said: “Abuses that have been happening for years have now come to light. We are still in the struggle, and although the