Monday, 25 June 2018 00:53

Ministry to Detainees in Washington

Written by Pat Bader
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Pat Bader – Seattle Chapter

In early January 2013, I toured the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest in the US (capacity 1,575 detainees), with a group of people interested in visiting detainees who have no family or friends in the area. The NW Detention Center, a for-profit facility, is located in the industrial area of Tacoma, WA, without any public transportation or services. It is operated by GEO Group (NYSE symbol GEO) under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), under the Department of Homeland Security.

A not-for-profit organization, Advocates for Immigrant in Detention Northwest (www.aidnw.org), located in Tacoma, trains volunteer visitors and assigns a detainee whom they visit frequently until the detainee is released or deported. Other not-for-profit organizations also have programs for visiting detainees at NW Detention Center.

No background checks are required for visitors. Shortly after completing a two-hour information and training program, I was assigned my first detainee, Carlos (not his real name), who was apprehended after being stopped for a burned-out tail light. I signed in at the Visitors’ Waiting Room, giving the name and A-number (A = alien) of the detainee I was about to meet. Each of the 19 small visiting booths, 15 for men and 4 for women, has two chairs separated by a glass partition and an intercom telephone to talk with the detainee.

After visiting with my detainee for about an hour, I felt more comfortable with the visiting process. We began to develop a friendship and exchanged information about ourselves. As a volunteer visitor, I don’t ask the detainee about any sensitive information, nor did I share any, for our mutual security. I visited every other week for about three months until my detainee informed me that he had exhausted his legal options and was being deported. I was saddened that I would no longer be able to visit him and encourage him during his detention.

During the next four years, I visited over 10 detainees, men and women, all of whom were eventually deported. (Some detainees are released or bonded out.) Although I grieved at their deportations, I felt that I had connected with them and had given them some encouragement during our visits as well as praying for them during and after their detention. 

The AIDNW organization also manages an RV Welcome Center parked outside the Detention Center for detainees released each day. Volunteers offer a friendly place where detainees receive help phoning families, making bus or plane reservations, filling out post-release forms, etc. Food, clothing, and backpacks are provided. For those unable to travel immediately, AIDNW has men’s and women’s transitional housing where detainees can stay until travel arrangements are finalized. Joy and gratitude permeate the Welcome Center as detainees anticipate being reunited with family and friends after confinement in the prison-like facility for weeks, months, or years.

A Worship Service program, sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle with the assistance of eucharistic minister volunteers, allows detainees to reconnect to or continue their spiritual life while away from their spiritual community. The volunteer ministers conduct five services for men and two for women weekly. Prospective ministers are vetted and then receive training from the Archdiocese and GEO.

Volunteering at the NW Detention Center has given me a greater respect for the detainees as people on their journey through life with hopes, aspirations, and challenges similar to mine. They inspire me with their faith in God and resilience while in detention.

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