At about noon on February 19, Angel Padilla began to feel nauseated and dizzy inside Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center—a 1,575-bed prison run by the GEO Group, a private prison corporation.
Padilla is a slight, bespectacled 39-year-old man from El Salvador who suffers from chronic back pain and has a cancerous tumor in his left kidney. He banged on the door of his cell to get the attention of a guard. Through a small hole in the door, Padilla said, he pleaded with the guard to send a nurse.
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“You don’t have any medical appointments, so you’re not going to go,” Padilla remembers the guard saying.
Padilla said he staggered away, vomited, and passed out. He woke up lying on the floor. He recalls a guard pulling him up and walking him toward the door, and then another guard calling out: “Sit him down. Don’t make him walk.”
Finally, a nurse appeared.
He was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center, given medication for his pain, and returned to the detention center later that day.
There are two stories being told about the Northwest Detention Center and its handling of the Padilla case. One comes from the federal department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency in charge of detaining and deporting immigrants. A spokesperson for ICE said Padilla was promptly taken to the hospital on February 19 after he complained of severe abdominal pain. Simple as that. The detention center complies with the law and American human-rights standards. Inmates who need health care get it. ICE plans to treat Padilla’s cancerous tumor and then deport him to El Salvador because of a crime he committed 20 years ago that he has already served nearly 20 years for. (He became eligible for release last year, after serving 85 percent of his 23-year sentence.)
The other story about the detention center comes from immigrants, their families, attorneys, activists, human-rights organizations, and the congressman who represents the area. To them, it is a hellish place—a blight on the Pacific Northwest—where conditions are “shocking,” in the words of state representative Adam Smith. The food is substandard, the guards are callous, and inmates are threatened with solitary confinement. These conditions have prompted hunger strikes within the center, as well as repeated demonstrations outside, including activists locking their arms together to block the entrances.
A report on the Northwest Detention Center by Seattle University’s Human Rights Clinic and OneAmerica described “long delays prior to medically necessary surgical procedures, unresponsiveness to requests for medical care, and pure refusal to treat painful medical conditions” back in 2008, among a host of other alleged human-rights violations.
But last fall, ICE renewed its contract with GEO Group for the next decade. The contract includes a bed quota, which guarantees that ICE will cover the cost of half of the beds—and therefore provide a reliable stream of revenue for the GEO Group.
“This contract is a symbol of systemic problems in our immigration detention system that we must fix,” Smith said. “We are left with a flawed detention policy that benefits private corporations at high cost to taxpayers, detainees, and families of those affected.”
For Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant who has led protests against the detention center, Padilla’s case in particular “shreds the myth that this is one of the best immigrant detention centers in the nation.”
Nine days after ICE re-upped its contract with GEO Group, on October 9, 2015, Padilla was ecstatic about the prospect of finally getting outof prison.
He had come a very long way. In an extended interview inside a tiny, white-walled visitation room at the Northwest Detention Center, Padilla—clad in a red jumpsuit, stone-faced with almond-shaped eyes—calmly recounted his story, occasionally breaking into tears.
As El Salvador’s brutal civil war ramped up, his mother came to the United States, Padilla told me. She made enough money to send for her mother and Padilla. They entered illegally and came to Torrance, a town in southern Los Angeles County.
“I grew up in a crazy environment,” Padilla said. There was constant pressure to join gangs. He extended a finger with a small, hard protrusion—shrapnel, he said, from when a man shot at him for walking across the street “the wrong way” at age 13. “Everything I was picking up as a child was nothing but crime,” Padilla said. “I didn’t know anything else.”
At age 17, Padilla committed an armed robbery to settle a score over drug money. Along with an accomplice, they tied up the family, but as they left, one man sprung loose and fired on them, wounding them both. Padilla was arrested, released, and then rearrested and tried as an adult after he turned 18 years old. He received a public defender and pleaded no contest to the charge of armed home invasion robbery.
In 1996, Padilla was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Padilla remembers a conversation with his mother. “I screwed up my life to this point,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Looking back now, Padilla said, “I know what I did was wrong. I’ve never said I didn’t do it. I’ve never tried to make justifications for it.”
During his time in California’s prison system—deemed overcrowded and cruel by the US Supreme Court in 2011—Padilla bore witness to fights and riots. (Go on the internet and search for “California prison riots” on YouTube, he said, to see what he means.)
But Padilla stayed out of trouble. He received his GED, taught himself to read and write in English and Spanish, and eventually landed a coveted position as a welder inside a prison factory. He manufactured bunk beds and stainless-steel tables, and earned a certificate in the trade. “I got so good at it,” he said, allowing himself a small smile. “I liked what I was doing… I’m certified in sheet metal, structural, pretty much anything besides underwater welding. I can weld anything.”
In 2011, he met a state social-services worker named Elizabeth, a young Catholic woman who visited prisons on her own time as part of her church’s charity work. They exchanged letters for two years, and then got married in a small ceremony held in the visitation room of Avenal State Prison. “I’ve never been as peaceful or happy as I am with her,” Padilla said. “She inspired me to take my religion seriously. To stop playing around.”
In October 2015, having served 19 years—85 percent of his sentence—Padilla became eligible for parole. A community reentry assessment gave him stellar marks: He was likely to find a job and establish a financial footing; he was unlikely to abuse substances or be antisocial. He planned to get a welding job with Siemens or a company called Tri Tool.
Angel and Elizabeth Padilla made a plan for the day of his release: Back in Los Angeles, he would take a walk with her.
His voice goes high and his eyes moisten as he remembers: “I told her, as soon as I get out of here and far away from this prison, I want to walk. I just want to walk. I want to know that feeling again.”
But at the last second, a prison official told him there was a warrant out for his arrest.
“A warrant?” Padilla said. “I’ve been locked up for 20 years in prison.”
“He came back and said, ‘Oh it’s ICE. They’re waiting for you outside.’” Even though he’s become a permanent resident—not a citizen—through family ties, ICE detained him, pending deportation, because of his aggravated felony offense.
"My whole world came down in that moment,” Padilla said. “I know I did wrong. But you’ve taken half of my life from me. And now that I’m getting out, you’re telling me, ‘Oh, you’re not getting out.’ What do you mean? My whole day was set, just to walk. That’s all I wanted to do. Walk. Feel free.”
“I’m not trying to paint myself as this saint or anything,” he said. “But I’ve paid my dues.”
As his wife drove to the prison gates to pick him up, an ICE van drove him in the opposite direction, to Mesa Verde Detention Facility—another private prison operated by GEO Group. He was transferred to GEO’s center in Tacoma on January 19 so that he could receive treatment for renal cell carcinoma, which has spread to his lymph nodes. A CAT scan first detected the cancer on December 9.
Padilla said he’s been advised by doctors that “every day counts,” and he has filed grievances with GEO Group and ICE protesting delays in his treatment.
ICE says this is the law. “Lawful permanent residents, like Mr. Padilla, who are convicted of serious or violent offenses—specifically those that are defined as ‘aggravated felonies’—become subject to removal from the country,” said ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice. “ICE has placed Mr. Padilla in removal proceedings and it will now be up to the immigration courts to decide whether he has a legal basis to remain in the US. By law, ICE is required to detain convicted aggravated felons while their immigration cases are pending.” Kice said the agency is working with a urologist in Tacoma to develop a treatment plan.
Padilla now faces two battles: fighting his cancer and fighting deportation. The best-case scenario is for ICE to swiftly schedule his surgery, and then for Padilla to win humanitarian parole, he said.
First, however, he has to find an immigration attorney who will take his case.
“We’ve seen cases where people were really sick,” said Villalpando, the activist. She became aware of Padilla’s case after another inmate gave him her phone number. “But because of the convictions they’ve had in the past, lawyers won’t take their case.”
“Someone like Angel is a great excuse for Obama to say we’re deporting criminals,” Villalpando said.
President Obama has deported more people than any other US president before him, and nearly more than every other president in the 20th century combined. If he adds Padilla to this list, he’ll have deported a sick man to a country from which the US Peace Corps pulled out this month, citing a 70 percent surge in the murder rate during 2015.
“His story is the story of why everything is wrong with the system," Villalpando said, "and why this system needs to be shut down immediately.”