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Locked and loaded

GEO Group will incarcerate more immigrants.

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Tacoma officials have confirmed that Florida-based private prison corporation the GEO Group has plans to expand a prison for immigrants on the Tacoma tide flats by 50 percent, providing capacity for more than 1,500 prisoners.

With capacity for 1,000 prisoners, the Northwest Detention Center is already the largest GEO private prison on the West Coast. Aggressive, ongoing efforts to expel illegal immigrants from the United States have created an overwhelming demand for private prisons, which generally charge the federal government about $100 per day to keep immigrants locked up while awaiting deportation.

The Northwest Detention Center opened quietly in 2004, under contract with The United States Department of Homeland Security. The prison operation was later transferred to the GEO Group, which also operates prison facilities in Australia, The United Kingdom, South Africa and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Private prisons for immigrants awaiting deportation are a cash cow for companies such as the GEO Group. According to organizations such as the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the phenomenal growth of the immigrant prison business is driven by operations launched by I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in 2003. Dubbed “Operation End Game,” the effort to deport all undocumented migrants by 2012 is part of the largest police operation in United States history. Since July 2007, raids have increased the number of detained migrants from 18,000 to 26,000 nationwide. Prisoners headed to the Tacoma facility are taken mostly from Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Washington. According to the Detention Watch Network, the U.S. government detains more than 280,000 people a year in a hodgepodge of more than 400 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.2 billion.

“The widespread detention of individuals because of civil violations of immigration law is one of the clearest examples of how our current immigration system is failing,” says Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Director Jorge L. Barón in a public statement denouncing expansion of the facility. “Although many people in our community do not realize this, a significant proportion of the individuals detained at the Tacoma detention center have resided in the United States for many years and have either no criminal record or a record composed of only traffic offenses. Detaining these individuals while their cases are processed before the immigration court results in the needless separation of family members and makes it harder for people to obtain legal representation.”

Local activists have called for closure of the facility on grounds that it doesn’t meet fundamental safety standards, and hasn’t produced required evacuation plans or documents. City officials contend they have no right to limit the expansion of the facility because it meets essential public facility standards as outlined in the state’s Growth Management Act. Groups such as Tacoma Smash I.C.E. and the Bill of Rights Defense Network Tacoma continue to oppose the facility’s presence, claiming that conditions there are unhealthy and that some prisoners are abused, while others are denied medical care while detained.

Stories offered by human rights advocates from inside the center do not paint a pretty picture.

The Detention Watch Network, for example, tells the story of a couple taken and imprisoned in the facility this past May. The daughter of the couple claims that her mother relayed stories of pregnant prisoners being denied proper medical care, and were forced to sleep on hard, thin mattresses and eat prison slop. The woman, whose name was not provided, told her daughter that people in the facility have died because their jailers refused to answer requests for medical care. Two pregnant prisoners experiencing medical complications were taken to the emergency room and examined in chains, on orders from accompanying prison officials.

 The woman relaying the tales was later released, having been imprisoned for months.

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