May 10, 2023, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill to create stronger health and safety protections for people detained in private prisons in the state. House Bill (HB) 1470, sponsored by Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-21), requires the state’s Department of Health to adopt a range of health and safety rules and to regularly inspect facilities to ensure compliance with the new standards. The bill also gives people detained a private right of action against any private prison operators who violate the new requirements.
“HB 1470 is an example of real grassroots efforts to bring accountability to having a private detention center in our state. Working alongside many other groups, we were able to win another battle to take another step towards ending the practice of profiting off our people’s misery. We must continue fighting to make Washington State a place where all immigrants are free from ICE’s terror,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, founder and community organizer with La Resistencia.
Currently, private prisons in Washington State operate without accountability or transparency. The Northwest Detention Center (or Northwest ICE Processing Center), located in Tacoma and operated by the private prison company GEO Group, maximizes its profits by cutting corners on essential services like food and sanitation. HB 1470 will require the facility to provide people detained with access to fresh air, clean clothing, clean living spaces, and nutritious food. The bill also requires a set of conditions to improve health and dignity for people in detention, including daily in-person visitation; telecommunications services free of charge; basic personal hygiene items free of charge; access to the internet; and a prohibition on solitary confinement.
“When private prisons fail to meet basic human rights protections, it is the state’s duty to step in to guarantee oversight and accountability. With HB 1470, our state agencies will have eyes on what is happening inside of these private facilities to prevent abuses and to fine facilities when abuses do occur,” said Hannah Woerner, attorney with Columbia Legal Services, who advocated for the bill.
HB 1470 gives state agencies strong enforcement authorities, including the ability to impose civil penalties against facilities that violate the law. Current inspections of the Northwest Detention Center are a sham, with the private company responsible for simply rubber-stamping inspections despite rampant problems with contaminated food, medical neglect, and deaths of people detained. Most provisions of the bill, including basic health and safety rulemaking and inspections, go into effect immediately. Other standards in the bill will go into effect in the event that the private facilities enter into new contracts.
The new law is groundbreaking, but still much work must be done following the bill’s passage. Effective implementation will include ensuring that people confined in private prisons have meaningful access to processes for reporting violations and submitting complaints.