Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tacoma Detention Center

Protest signs at the NW Detention Center
Aztec Dance troupe on street in front of Detention Center. 
Yesterday, I accompanied curator and art historian Susan Platt on a trip to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a for-profit detention institution run by the Geo Corporation under contract to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.)   Susan has organized the excellent exhibition “Migration,”
on display at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle through July 5

The NW Detention Center has been in the news for alleged human rights violations, including beatings and extreme use of solitary confinement, directed against undocumented persons who have not been been convicted of (or even charged with) any crime. As of yesterday 1,466 detainees were held in the center.  The immigration detention system, run by for profit corporations, exists outside of the US Federal correctional system and is not subject to regular judicial oversight. The Center was recently discussed in a stinging Seattle Times editorial:

For years, there have been Saturday community protests outside of the detention center, in the Tidal Flats area of Tacoma.  Yesterday, the protests featured a skilled dance performance by a Seattle-based Aztec-style dance troupe, who sought the blessing of Mother Earth as they began their dance, honoring the four cardinal directions. The courageous (undocumented) immigration rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando explained in her remarks that the performers also honored the indigenous divinities of the Puyallup Tribe, on whose land the Detention Center stands. The dances were dazzling; the beautifully feathered and caped performers burned incense in a special ritual vessel, placed on a bandana, toward which they repeatedly knelt as they danced in the street in front of the Detention Center.

I spoke with the very eloquent Ms. Villalpando, who has appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now
and on many other broadcasting platforms.

I noted that Central Washington University is embarking on a year devoted to exploring the theme of mass incarceration, including administrative detention of undocumented immigrants.  Might it be possible to partner with the various organizations working with and on behalf of the detained?  Maru thought it was well worth exploring. We could certainly do expressive arts workshops, poetry writing/performance or family literacy events for the family members of detainees, on the strip of grass in front of the center. (The courts have adjudicated this area of "free speech zone," a civil liberties attorney explained.)  Direct access to the detainees, with whom we might want to do arts or performance projects, will be much more challenging since normally they are only able to communicate with the outside world across glass windows on telephones that don’t work well. But it may be possible to request a more flexible policy. 

We heard many moving and disturbing stories from former detainees and relatives about conditions inside the Detention Center. Hardly any exercise or activities for the detainees, who in some cases have been kept imprisoned for up to three years with minimal contacts with loved ones.  Beatings, threats and intimidation by the private security guards, with retaliation by ICE and the GEO corporation for any protests, including hunger strikes.  Maru said some detainees try to create art on their own out of scraps of plastic; more systematic expressive arts workshops would be life-sustaining, she thought.

A great deal to look into, clearly!

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