Judge blocks tighter Washington state oversight of immigration detention center

FILE PHOTO: Moshannon Valley Processing Center, a former prison repurposed as an immigration detention facility in Pennsylvania

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A federal judge blocked Washington state from enforcing most of a law intended to boost oversight and improve living conditions at the state's only privately run, for-profit immigration detention facility.

Friday's preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle will benefit Geo Group, the owner of the Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Tacoma.

The center has about 1,575 beds, and is among the largest such facilities in the country.

Washington's law required operators of private detention facilities to regularly clean and sanitize living areas; provide detainees with personal hygiene items such as soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste at no cost; and offer nutritious, balanced diets.

The law also let state officials conduct unannounced inspections, gave detainees a right to sue over conditions, and provided for civil fines of $1,000 per violation per day.

Geo sued Governor Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson last July, two months after the law took effect, claiming it was being singled out while Washington spared state-run facilities of tighter oversight.

In a 64-page decision, Settle said the law "impermissibly discriminates against Geo" by imposing greater requirements on federal contractors such as the Boca Raton, Florida-based company, than on similarly situated state constituents.

Despite's Washington interest in protecting public health and safety, "the court will not permit the state to enforce unconstitutional laws so that it can seek to address the public policy concerns that gave rise to those laws," Settle wrote.

The judge is based in Tacoma.

Inslee's and Ferguson's offices did not immediately respond to requests on Sunday for comment.

Geo said it was pleased with the decision, and "committed to continue providing the federal government with contracted secure residential care services in accordance with all applicable federal standards."Detainees and human rights critics had long complained about sanitary conditions, food safety and medical care at the Tacoma facility. Some detainees have gone on reported hunger strikes.

More than 90% of the average 30,000 people held daily in ICE detention are housed in private facilities, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated last July.

Geo owns, manages or leases more than 100 correctional facilities, immigration detention centers and treatment facilities.

The case is Geo Group Inc v Inslee et al, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, No. 23-05626.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Lincoln Feast.)