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ICE Awaits Law Banning Private Detention Centers

A bill awaiting Gov. Newsom’s signature would bar new private prison contracts. Two industry giants are already reinventing themselves.

Robin Urevich

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Currently awaiting Governor Newsom’s signature or veto by an October 13 deadline, Assembly Bill 32 could make California the first state to ban for-profit immigration detention centers and the fifth, following Illinois, Iowa, New York and Nevada, to bar private companies from running for-profit state prisons.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), who authored the bill, argued that private prison firms are accountable to their shareholders, but not to Californians.

“They’re only looking at short-term profit. We’re looking at long-term investment in people,” Bonta said, adding that proportionally, private prisons have more assaults, higher recidivism rates and worse conditions for prison employees than public-sector lockups.

“It’s a no-brainer for me in protecting public health and safety,” Bonta said.

Aseembly Bill 32 passed the assembly on a 65-11 vote, and the senate by 33-6. Seven assembly Republicans and five GOP senators cast yes votes, while Assemblyman James Ramos (D-Highland) crossed party lines to vote no.

More than 60 immigrant and human rights groups, including the California Labor Federation and the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, support AB 32. Private prison firms the GEO Group and CoreCivic together poured more than $150,000 into lobbying on it but, even though they stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the governor signs the bill, didn’t publicly oppose it.

Assembly Bill 32’s lone adversary is the California State Sheriffs’ Association, whose legislative director Cory Salzillo told Capital & Main that the group’s opposition was not a value judgment on private prisons, instead saying that if the state has fewer incarceration options, “There is increased pressure to release folks or involuntarily force inmate populations upon counties.”

Salzillo said a provision that would allow the state to renew or extend a private prison contract if the state’s prison population exceeds a court-ordered cap is helpful but doesn’t fully address the sheriffs’ concerns.

In the San Bernardino city of Adelanto, Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans says if the governor signs AB 32, she will introduce an ordinance later this month that would keep private prisons out of Adelanto forever, even if state prisons become overcrowded.

“What’s the incentive to truly rehabilitate people if they make their money off filling beds?” Evans asked.

The ordinance would be an about-face for the city, which is home to two GEO facilities and has relied on more than a million dollars annually from a development agreement with the company.

Evans said taxes from the city’s cannabis businesses are on track to replace the prison revenue.

Not so in the small Imperial County city of Holtville, which has relied on fees from a Utah-based prison firm, Management and Training Corporation.

Until last month, the city acted as intermediary between the company and ICE, and collected at least $157,000 per year for its administrative role in operating the company’s Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s a big financial loss,” said Holtville City Manager Nick Wells.

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The bill bars new private prison contracts after January 1, 2020, or until current private prison contracts expire.

It would put GEO Group, the nation’s largest private prison firm, out of the state corrections business in California by 2023—when its contracts to operate a total of 1,700 beds at the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility and the McFarland Community Reentry Facility, both in the Central Valley city of McFarland, and the Desert View Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto expire. Last month, the state canceled a GEO contract to operate the 700-bed Central Valley Modified Community Corrections Facility, also in McFarland.

By next September the bill could wipe out private immigration detention in California altogether when the last of four such contracts ends.

The bill would be a major blow to ICE, which currently incarcerates a record number of immigrant detainees nationwide.

California has historically held more ICE detainees than any other state except Texas. But the agency’s California footprint has already shrunk significantly under mounting public opposition and increased scrutiny from Sacramento.

Earlier this year, both California State Auditor Elaine Howle and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued reports that sharply criticized both subpar detention conditions and lack of oversight by California cities and counties. The sheriffs of Sacramento, Contra Costa and Orange counties all canceled long-standing detention contracts with ICE between June 2018 and July 2019, while the cities of McFarland and Adelanto also severed ties with the agency last March and June, respectively.

Last month, ICE ended its Holtville contract. ICE has relied on “intergovernmental service agreements” with cities to contract with private firms because the IGSA’s allow the agency to bypass lengthy and public government procurement procedures.

When the contracts in McFarland, Adelanto and Holtville were canceled, ICE struck one-year deals with the private firms to continue operating, arguing it would be too costly to relocate large detainee populations and that the companies were uniquely qualified to continue operating the detention centers.

Currently, the GEO Group holds nearly 2,000 immigrant detainees at its Adelanto detention facility, and some 400 at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield. Management and Training Corporation holds about 800 detainees at its Calexico facility. The nearly 900 bed Otay Mesa Detention Center is operated by CoreCivic under a direct contract with ICE. It expires in June 2020.

Once the detention agreements lapse, AB 32 would not prohibit ICE from running its own detention centers in California. ICE, however, relies almost exclusively on private contractors to operate its detention system.

If AB 32 becomes law, ICE is almost certain to challenge it in court. However, constitutional scholar and Dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Law School Erwin Chemerinsky wrote to the State Senate Judiciary Committee stating his belief that the law would survive a court challenge as it doesn’t preempt federal immigration law.

But Lauren-Brooke Eisen, author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration and senior fellow and acting director at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said the companies are ready to reinvent themselves.

“These firms have been reading the tea leaves for a long time and started to diversify many years ago,” Eisen said. “They were seeing that states across the country were working to reduce prison populations.”

GEO currently holds 20 three to four year contracts with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation worth more than $150 million to operate substance use, therapy and reentry programs that help parolees transition to life outside of prison, and it could be in the running for all or part of a new $400 million contract to provide substance-use counseling to state prisoners. CoreCivic holds a single four-year $18.4 million reentry contract in San Diego.

According to former New York City corrections commissioner Martin Horn, it’s still too early to tell whether the big prison companies can be successful, but he said state oversight is key.

Some advocates, however, say the corporate “one size fits all” approach the big companies use in reentry programs can be counterproductive, while opposition to what’s being called the “treatment industrial complex” is growing and could spark a new move to get the big corporations out of California’s social services business.


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