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Snapshot of life locked up at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center

The Northwest Detention Center has been the site of hunger strikes, protests, and even a fatal police shooting during an attempted arson this summer.

It’s a processing facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Northwest, housing more than 1,300 men and women as they go through deportation proceedings.

Vu Nguyen lived there while fighting his deportation case. He shared his experience to provide context after ICE offered journalists a tour this week – the first of its kind in Washington state.

Nguyen’s individual experience seemed to support much of what reporters observed: a clean, organized, professional facility – at the end of the day, a jail. But his experience is just one of many.

“The first time I go in there, I just wait for a month and a half to go to court. Then after a month and a half I go to court and they deny me,” said Nguyen of his petition to stay in the United States. “You know, it takes a long, long wait in there.”

Nguyen is originally from Vietnam and got his green card for legal permanent residency when he moved to the United States 19 years ago. The 38-year-old has called Thurston County his home for most of that time.

Nguyen admits he’s had many run-ins with the law. Court records show his criminal history stretches back to at least 2008, and includes assaults and domestic violence. When he pleaded guilty to another felony in December of 2015, ICE got involved.

Life behind bars

After spending 30 days in Thurston County’s jail, Nguyen was re-arrested and ordered deported.

For the next four years, he called ICE detention centers home. ICE statistics show the average time spent at that facility is just 73 days. About 35 percent of the people there have been targeted for arrest by ICE because of their criminal backgrounds.

“They transfer me everywhere,” Nguyen said. “I go to Louisiana, Alabama, they transfer me back to Washington, then I go to Arizona – everywhere. They don’t let you stay one spot.”

According to ICE, “Custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. Many factors go into this determination but they are often based on bed space allocation, necessary medical care, and distance to a support system.”

Detainees can also be moved to be closer to family, court hearings, or to facilities with different healthcare specialties. For example, California’s main processing center has strong psychiatric support, according to ICE.

The look and feel, though, was the same most places, according to Nguyen.

“Being there looked like the county jail,” Nguyen said. “Everybody in, like, a dorm. Sometimes we live in there together, sometimes we fight, you know, all kinds of stuff.”

Fights were common.

“The guards have to keep an eye on you because sometimes we fight,” Nguyen said. “Because a lot of people are crazy in there. Sometimes they fight for no reason.”

But it wasn’t scary for him.

“I have to be there be there to fight for my green card,” Nguyen said, matter-of-factly.

For years, immigration advocates have highlighted a laundry list of poor conditions, including delayed and deficient health care, and abuses by guards, along with sparse and spoiled food. Earlier in the week, activists heard from detainees who said they found maggots in their food.

Not a Michelin-star experience

“Some places the food’s good, some places the food’s bad,” Nguyen said. “When I stay in Alabama, the food’s very bad. They feed you beans every day and they don’t feed you meat a lot. I stayed Alabama three years.”

In Tacoma, he said, the food was “alright.” The private company running that facility works with dietitians to come up with meal plans that total 3,000 calories a day. But, Nguyen still preferred making his own meals when he could scrape together enough money through work details to buy food from the commissary.


“They feed you all the same on the menu every week,” said Nguyen. It was bland, he said, but he never had to eat spoiled food. “Sometimes I see a lot of people eat the cornbread, it’s too hard – because they overcook something. They complain about it.”

During the years he was detained, Nguyen interacted with many guards. Some were better than others, but he believes they were fair overall.

“I was in there for four years,” Nguyen said. “I know all the rules. If you keep the rules and you do your own thing, nobody’s going to touch you or do something bad to you. It’s their job, they have to protect you. They’re not supposed to abuse you. Only, you do something wrong, you have to accept what you do.”

He did encounter racism, he said. And there were guards who weren’t responsive to detainees’ needs. In his experience, though, abuses were not widespread.

Solitary confinement

“Depends on you,”Nguyen said. “If you do something wrong in there, they’re gonna put you in separation. And they keep you in there for a while. If you don’t do nothing, they treat you good. You can do your own thing.”

Separation is also known as solitary confinement. Nguyen was caught with contraband and was kept in solitary confinement for about five days as punishment.

“Something you do wrong, you have to accept what you do,” Nguyen concluded.

Advocates have accused ICE of using isolation to retaliate against and subdue organized protests by detainees, like hunger strikes.

Hunger strikes, Nguyen said, were common.

“A lot of Cuban people. They say ICE doesn’t release them,” Nguyen recalled. “They said the country don’t accept them and ICE have to release them. I see a lot of people do hunger strikes, a week or two weeks.”

Nguyen did get released. He won his appeal and regained permanent residency. Now he’s celebrating with a trip to Las Vegas.

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