The Northwest Detention Center.
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. ASK

Six public health experts affiliated with the University of Washington have sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee asking him to use his power to "compel" answers from Geo Group, the private prison operator responsible for running the controversial Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) pays Geo to run the Tacoma detention center, which has been described as "one of the largest immigration prisons" in the country, capable of holding more than 1,500 inmates. The facility has long been a magnet for concern, outrage, and protest against Trump administration immigration policies, and it is now drawing concern about its ability to protect inmates from COVID-19.

"Even before the current pandemic," the UW health experts write, "basic medical services at the NW Detention Center were insufficient for the conditions in the facility—and therefore we must conclude the current circumstances are well beyond the facility’s capacity."

Geo Group said in a statement that its current policies are "in line" with federal and World Health Organization suggestions for combating coronavirus in prisons.

But the UW health experts believe it's "highly unlikely" that Geo Group is actually complying with CDC guidance, and they contend that anything less than full compliance "will gravely endanger the health and lives of detainees, and create a potentially disastrous situation."

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Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee, said the governor's office has received the letter and "the governor's executive team and advisers plan to discuss it this week."

This is hardly the first time alarms have been raised about the Northwest Detention Center, and it comes at a moment when worry about coronavirus in prison populations is rising nationwide. Here in Washington, the state Supreme Court has agreed to consider, "on an expedited basis," a lawsuit that seeks the release of state inmates deemed most susceptible to COVID-19.

The high court will hear arguments on that case in April.