The Tacoma Detention Center
  • Ansel Herz
  • The Norwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Direct action gets the goods!

Two months after immigrants launched a hunger strike at the privately run, for-profit Tacoma Detention Center, US Representative Adam Smith has introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act.

"This is the first time I've read a piece of policy that made me smile," said Maru Mora Villalpando of #Not1More Deportation. "It was based on hunger strikers' demands instead of being shaped by lobbyists—it was shaped by the people impacted by these terrible conditions. It makes a huge difference and contributes to the debate about immigration reform."

She fully credits the hunger strikers at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for pushing their plight into the national consciousness and making this legislation happen. "What these guys did," she said, "really changed the conversation about immigration itself." She also credits Rep. Smith with being responsive to the strikers. "To have a politician reach out to us before we even called him—that makes this a really honest thing," she said.

The legislation would, among other things, (a) create a committee to oversee conditions at the centers, including representatives from immigrant-advocacy groups, medical experts, and others who are more interested in the detainees than the detention center's profits, (b) require detention centers to be comprehensive in their record-keeping and responsive when asked for them, (c) mandate that detention centers that score poorly on two consecutive inspections have their contracts terminated within 60 days.

It also contains specific language prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers and others who want to file grievances over what Rep. Smith called the "shocking" conditions at detention centers.

“After visiting the NWDC to speak with detainees on hunger strike, it was clear that more enforceable standards were necessary,” Rep. Adam Smith said in a statement today. “Many detainees are fathers and mothers who have committed no crime, yet are being held in unacceptable conditions for a prolonged period of time. This legislation is focused on improving living conditions for detainees and increasing oversight and transparency of the treatment of detainees.”

The act has seven co-sponsors so far, all Democrats. It'll be interesting/infuriating to see what kinds of knots the Republicans tie themselves into to combat this legislation that, at its root, wants to make for-profit prison companies accountable and transparent.