• Alex Garland
  • Protesters outside the Northwest Detention Center.

In an interview yesterday with The Stranger, Representative Adam Smith (D-9) said conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma—where hundreds of jailed immigrants launched a hunger strike this month and one remains under medical observation—were "shocking" and "very, very tough" when he visited last week. As a result, Smith intends to introduce legislation to create minimum standards under which immigrants can be detained. The hunger strike has since gone national.

"I'm trying to put pressure on them to get the conditions changed however possible," Smith said. Which makes sense, seeing as his district, stretching from South Seattle to Federal Way, is one of the most diverse in the country. Immigrants make up 16 percent of his constituents and about half of all kids in the district have at least one immigrant parent. Smith said he's voiced his concerns both in a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and verbally to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Rations at the jail are "wildly inconsistent, and sometimes inedible," Smith said three hunger strikers told him during his visit. The detainees are also protesting high prices for commissary items and $1 per day wages for menial work within the facility.

"It is really problematic," Smith continued, "having a private company running this." He pointed out that not only is the center run by the private prison company GEO Group, but that GEO uses subcontractors to handle meals for the detainees and other other aspects of running the 1575-bed facility. "So I can imagine that the less they pay for the food, the more money they make."

Besides the conditions inside the jail, "there are real concerns over whether we should be deporting these people," Smith said. One of the hunger strikers he spoke with moved here at age 9. He was arrested for assault long ago, but no charges were filed against him. Because he was undocumented, immigration agents subsequently took him to the NWDC pending possible deportation. "These people are being ripped apart from their families," Smith told me. "Is that making our community a better place? I don't think so."

Smith is in the beginning stages of crafting legislation that could address everything from mandatory bed quotas (Smith called them "inherently wrong") to the government's reliance on corporations to run immigrant detention centers. The scope of the legislation will depend on how the Obama administration responds to his inquiries. In the absence of serious reforms, he said, "we may have to get out of the private prison business."

It's great to hear a legislator condemn the government's aggressive detention and deportation policies, and to question the use of private prison companies, which in and of itself is a scandal. What's not so great is that it took detainees starving themselves in order to shake lawmakers into taking action. That means it's up to immigrants and their activist supporters to keep the pressure on until change materializes.