Hunger Strike May Spur Federal Reform to Immigration Detention

George Lavender

Rep. Adam Smith visited the Northwest Detention Center and spoke with hunger striking detainees

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U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D‑Wash.), whose district includes the Northwest Detention Center where hundreds of detainees took part in a hunger strike earlier this year, introduced new legislation last week that he believes will provide greater oversight of immigration detention. The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act would guarantee minimum nutritional standards, minimum pay rates for work, as well as mandate unannounced inspections of detention facilities. The Prison Complex spoke with Rep. Smith about the legislation, the hunger strike, and the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform.

Can you start by explaining what the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act will do?

The (current) problem is the detention facilities are run by the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) under the Department of Homeland Security. For federal prisoners there is federal legislation that sets minimum treatment standards for the inmates but in detention facilities under the ICE there is no federal law it’s set by ICE. The ones who run the prison basically set the rules for how to conduct it, there’s no oversight. One of the other problems is we have now contracted-out the running of the detention facilities so that private companies actually own and operate the facilities and this has lead to some very bad conditions in some of these detention facilities including the one in my district in Tacoma (where) a hunger strike started a few months back because of these conditions. The main complaints were: the food’s terrible, highly inconsistent in terms of the quality, inedible at a certain point… you can understand it because that food service is subcontracted out by a private contractor and the less money they spend on food the more money they make. In the absence of specific regulations requiring things they have a great deal of flexibility on that. There is also concern about the privately run commissary where if inmates earn money working they can go buy things but the prices were too high (and) the items were not things the inmates wanted. Then there were complaints about the fact that if you did voluntary work where you earned money the wages for that are substantially less than what they are at federal prisons. The wages were a dollar a day. No matter how long you worked you get a dollar. So basically there was a lack of protections for the detainees in these facilities. My legislation would set minimum standards modeled largely off federal law that already exists for federal prisons. Inmates should have minimum standards that are legislatively set and not just set by the people who are running the detention facilities.

You visited the Northwest Detention Center where the recent hunger strike took place, what did you learn from that visit?

I talked with a number of the inmates. I would say it’s not so much what I saw in a one hour visit, it’s based on the inmates I spoke to in the hunger strike, things I was told. What the inmates told me was how awful the food was, how they couldn’t eat it for days at a time. They told me about the abuse of the dollar a day (wage). In a federal prison you’re not paid much but you’re paid by the hour. They would say that they would be required to work 10 or 11 hours a day. And they thought that that system was being abused. There was also a general complaint about the treatment by the guards, that it was very rough and borderline abusive. That people were thrown into solitary far too often, it was used as a threat so they were concerned about that. I heard enough from the detainees to be concerned about the conditions. I will say that since the hunger strike and since a number of groups including my office have brought attention to it, most of the detainees say the conditions have improved as a response to the focus on their concerns, so that’s a positive. But at the time I visited about three weeks ago, there was deep concern about the quality and the conditions.

Part of your legislation is aimed at encouraging the use of alternatives to detention. Will that conflict with the congressional bed mandate” requiring ICE to keep an average of 34,000 detainees in custody each day?

The minimum bed requirement is bad law in my opinion. There should not be a requirement we lock up a minimum number of people. Whether or not you detain somebody should depend on public safety not on some minimum requirement. I did not actually put that in this piece of legislation because we want to try to do it through the appropriations process but we definitely need to get rid of the minimum bed requirement. One of the other big concerns (is) that there’s not enough bail and there’s not enough discretion being exercised by the ICE in terms of who they put into these detention centers. We detain people we don’t need to detain and we do it in large part because of this private prison incentive.

You’ve pointed out that many of these detention centers are run by for-profit companies including GEO and the Corrections Corporation of America, do you think that needs to be changed?

I do. I think privately run prisons (are) a bad idea in general. The problem we have is that the private corporations own the facilities. That was part of the incentive to do this was to get the private company to build and fill it. If at this point we were to go back to the ICE running these facilities, not private companies, what would happen to the buildings? I’m trying to figure out how that would work but I definitely think that the lessons we learned here is that privatizing prison is not a good idea. You do not want to place an incentive in US law to lock up more people. I think it was a bad idea that we need to work on reversing, but it’s not going to be easy given the fact that these facilities are owned by the private companies.

What opposition do you expect to face to this legislation?

Off the top there shouldn’t be any huge opposition to this except from the process. I’ve got to get this through the Republican house and they’re not as concerned about how detainees are treated. We have not heard any specific opposition yet, but then again Congress right now is not passing a great deal of legislation right now regardless of what it is. Republicans are keeping a very, very tight control of the agenda so we’re going to roll it out there and see. I have not heard of any specific opposition but I’m mindful of the fact that the legislative process can be long and slow so we’re going to have to be persistent on it.

You mentioned reforming the minimum bed requirement, are there other steps you would like to see in terms of more widespread reform?

The biggest thing we do here is comprehensive immigration reform where we don’t detain and deport as many people. Comprehensive immigration reform is a huge part of this, to give the existing undocumented population a pathway to citizenship. The other big piece is re-introducing more judicial discretion of who gets detained and deported. The big thing here in all of this is the undocumented population of the United States of America is a lot more of an integral part of our communities than most people are willing to admit. There are people who have been here, in some cases for decades who are raising families, working, paying taxes, being positive members of our community and to lock them up and deport them and break up families and break up communities is not in our best interests. Right now we don’t have enough discretion in handling that, which is why we need comprehensive immigration reform, that’s the bigger picture, (to) stop seeing deportation as the overarching goal of our immigration policy.

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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