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Up Date on Visitation Program at NW Detention Center


The NWuuJN has many tools to foster social justice work.  We, as Unitarians with an interest in immigration, used these tools to focus and direct our immigration work.  The outcome is that we are up and running with a volunteer visitation program at the Northwest Detention Center.  Here is a little overview as to how this came about.

At the first Justice Summit the Northwest UU Justice Network identified immigration as a social justice issue Unitarians wanted to work on.  Throughout the next year a listening campaign identified possible leaders and areas of interest regarding immigration.  Last May the Immigration Conveners facilitated a meeting on immigration. Several dedicated and hardworking immigration Unitarian social activists advocated for Visitation Program at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.  The need for this program is rooted in the history of immigration story of the United States.  The Northwest Detention Center, with its 1500 beds, is the 3rd largest detention center in the United States.  Individuals picked up on immigration violations anywhere in the United States can find themselves incarcerated in the detention center.   The detention center is a privately run facility with an eye toward profit.  Human rights abuses have been reported on by Seattle University’s School of Law.  A volunteer visitation program helps to correct this injustice in a couple of ways.  First, the routine visits by community members provide a means to document any abuses detainees are subjected to.  Second, and most importantly, a visitation program would affirm the dignity and value of detained persons.  The act of being present as witness to the isolation and deprovisions of a detained person allows all of us to affirm our humanity.

The NWuuJN provided a platform for interested parties to meet and discuss the shape and size of the program.  Through the website we were able to post status updates about the development    of the program, build a data base of potential volunteers and by using the calendar feature, keep people posted about educational and advocacy events, whether on-going, such as vigils or once, such as Building Bridges’ joint Secure Communities workshop with MAPS.   The Justice Summit last September gave the immigration group a way to highlight a community member, Gaye Shye, had fostered a relationship with a detainee at the Northwest Detention Center.  Additionally, the NWuuJN helped us identify and locate allies.  Other organizations, some non-profit, some faith-based, some community-centered also wanted to shine a light on the detention center.  Informal social contacts and personal interaction though network resources helped us identify allies to work with.  Through it all, the board of directors of NWuuJN provided thoughtful counterpoints to our discouragement with ideas about social justice and advocacy in the broader context of community engagement and social change.

So, over these past months we have put in place the pieces of a volunteer visitation program.  We still are working out the bugs and piloting aspects of the process. Through the support of the NWuuJN we have come very close to a functioning program and we work toward completion of this goal.   Individuals have toured the detention center; we have written a volunteer manual, designed application and have run background checks on the applicants.  Our next step is to begin to match detainees with volunteers. Think about the issues you would like to work on and the changes you want to make.  The Northwest Justice Network is there for you and your congregation.  Give us a try.


 If you are interested in being a volunteer at the Detention Center please contact Pat Gunn or Barbara Peterman at



gunn, p. (2013). Up Date on Visitation Program at NW Detention Center. Retrieved from