Builders for the private prison company CoreCivic presented this rendering of an immigration jail proposed for outside Evanston at a public meeting on Dec. 2. (CoreCivic)

By refusing to regulate a private immigration jail planned outside Evanston, Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials leave the state vulnerable to litigation and immigrants to poor treatment, the American Civil Liberty Union of Wyoming says. 

The ACLU asked the governor, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and auditor in a Jan. 21 letter to exert their authority over the project. The officials should follow state statute that requires both approval and regulation of for-profit incarceration in Wyoming, the civil rights group wrote.

The ACLU opposes the for-profit prison industry and the proposed immigration jail, but the correspondence does not ask the officials to reject the plan.

Allowing the facility to be constructed without the officials’ approval would be illegal, the ACLU argued. Following the statue allows officials to “retain [their] ability to monitor and protect” any immigrants held in Wyoming, the letter read.

The civil liberties group is challenging a June 2018 opinion of the Wyoming attorney general. In the opinion, then-AG Peter Michael argued that the jail pushed by private prison companies does not fall under state statute requiring the approval of the five officials for private prisons, jails and “facilities.”

Gov. Mark Gordon reads from prepared remarks before a press conference on June 27. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

By doing so, the AG ignored the “plain language” of the statute, according to the ACLU. The laws “not only apply to the proposed detention facility,” the letter signed by Cheyenne-based ACLU organizer Antonio Serrano read, “but are an invaluable tool to ensure that all detainees held in a private facility are treated with respect and dignity.” 

The current AG, and Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, both stood by Michael’s opinion in comments to WyoFile last week.

Though AG opinions are non-binding, elected officials have cited Michael’s view as the reason to leave decisions about the proposed immigration jail up to the Uinta County Commission. That board unanimously supports the jail despite harshly divided sentiment in the county seat, Evanston. 

The interpretation of the law as not applying to the proposed detention center has spiked outrage from the idea’s opponents, and the debate reached the Wyoming Legislature in 2018. Gordon cited the opinion in October 2019 when he declined to take a stance on the project despite a “tremendous amount of kickback” he had heard.

“I respect all that has been said about, ‘is this the right thing for Wyoming, is this the right thing for Evanston, is this the way we want our state to be viewed,’” he said at the time. “I do take that quite seriously.” Still, the project was a matter for Uinta County purview, he said.

The ACLU’s letter comes as prison company CoreCivic and the Department of Homeland Security appear to be accelerating the project, which has been discussed in Evanston since June 2017. Officials in Evanston also dismissed the letter, before the Uinta County Commission passed a resolution on Jan. 21 to sell the land needed for the detention center to CoreCivic. 

“Does it concern you that the ACLU could sue Uinta County and then you would have to fight the lawsuit and that’d be a cost that’s borne by the county?” a critic asked. The letter does not impede the commission from advancing the project, Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson responded. 

“That letter certainly is not something that is surprising,” she said. The commission voted to sell 63 acres for $5,000 an acre, which totals $315,000.

County officials have turned a deaf ear to community concerns and sought to stymie public input, ACLU’s Serrano said. “We’ve seen clearly that the county commissioners are doing things without transparency,” he said.

At key moments in the process, like when one private prison company dropped the project into the hands of another, commissioners chose not to inform their constituents. County officials argue they’ve held opportunities for public comment and information sessions.

Uinta County residents opposed to the facility hope to meet with statewide officials and members of the Wyoming Legislature, Serrano said.

Antonio Serrano, who was born and raised in Albin, Wyoming to an immigrant father, today works as an organizer with the ACLU of Wyoming. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The letter suggests that the state and Uinta County are risking lawsuits by acting as if the state statute governing private incarceration does not apply to a for-profit immigration jail. Proceeding without the approval of the state’s five elected officials “would flout the will of the state’s legislature and expose the state and Uinta County to potential time-consuming and costly litigation,” the letter reads.

The letter doesn’t mean the prominent national civil rights organization will sue, Andrew Malone, an ACLU lawyer, said. “It’s a little premature but we’re still weighing the decision,” he said. “We think it’s important to follow the rule of law.

“The ball’s in their court,” he said. 

Both Gordon and Bridget Hill, the attorney general he appointed to replace Michael, dismissed the ACLU’s letter. “[Gordon’s] comfortable with the AG’s previous opinion,” the governor’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman said on Friday. “He had a conversation with [Hill] this morning. He remains of the belief that this is a local issue that should be determined in Uinta County.”  

Statute provides for access and oversight

Wyoming’s Private Correctional Facilities Act governs any privately run “jail, prison or other incarceration facility.” The statute begins by calling for the approval of the five state elected officials before the state or a local government contracts with a private prison company.

It also regulates guard training requirements and when “use of force” is justifiable. The statute guarantees the public the same rights of access to a private facility as at state-run correctional facilities.

At a December 2019 public meeting, CoreCivic officials said U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement would monitor operations, given the contract would be with the federal officials. 

The statute also requires the prison company to maintain an insurance plan to protect both local governments and the state from any lawsuits against the facility. “This insurance requirement is especially important considering the large number of individual and class action civil rights lawsuits that have been filed against privately run immigration detention facilities and the counties in which they are located,” the ACLU letter reads. 

A rendering of the floorplan for the immigration jail CoreCivic hopes to build outside Evanston. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Michael, the former AG, opined that the proposed immigration jail — where ICE would hold allegedly undocumented immigrants while they await deportation hearings — did not fall under state purview. 

“The immigration detention center is not a private correctional facility subject to the authority of the five state elected officials,” Michaels wrote in the opinion. . “We therefore advise that you take no action in this matter.” 

The AG’s opinion does not carry the force of law that a judge’s ruling would, the ACLU letter said. 

The letter cited the Wyoming Supreme Court, which ruled against a different attorney general opinion in 2018. That case is familiar to Gordon  because he filed the suit when he was the state treasurer. Largely successful, the suit accused other state government branches of ignoring the treasurer’s office authority.

No oversight? 

The ACLU argued the Michael opinion removed not just the need for the five officials’ approval, but any ability for the state to apply regulations to a prison within its borders. CoreCivic purchasing the property and contracting with the federal government shouldn’t exempt the company, according to the ACLU. “The Act is clearly meant to apply to any privately operated facility in Wyoming that deprives a person of their freedom,” the letter reads.

Private immigration jails have a long history of violating immigrants’ rights, the ACLU wrote, citing reports by the federal government’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General. ICE’s oversight of the private facilities they contract with has fallen short, the OIG said. CoreCivic itself has faced lawsuits related to its increasingly lucrative immigration detention business as well as its private prisons for state and federal inmates.

By exempting CoreCivic’s proposed immigration jail from the requirements of state statute, Wyoming “would be powerless to monitor, correct and prevent similar dehumanizing behavior from taking place within Wyoming’s borders,” ACLU argued. 

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Read the ACLU of Wyoming’s Jan. 21 letter, and the Wyoming AG’s June 2018 opinion, below. 




ACLU of Wyoming Letter RE Wy Five State Elected Officials (PDF)

ACLU of Wyoming Letter RE Wy Five State Elected Officials (Text)




2018 001FORMALOPINION (PDF)

2018 001FORMALOPINION (Text)

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Just curious: Does the state have the authority to regulate federal prisons in Wyoming that are run by the feds, paid for by the feds, and overseen by the feds?

    “Private immigration jails have a long history of violating immigrants’ rights”

    Won’t the feds be responsible for ensuring that the operation of the facility meets contractual obligations in regards to immigrant rights?

    Don’t most *public* prisons have a long history of violating rights or Americans and non-Americans? This isn’t about private prisons, or immigrant rights. It’s about illegal immigrants. The desire for open borders runs deep in many liberal and conservative minds. The idea that immigration laws should be enforced is unfathomable and highly objectionable to many Americans. Would the ACLU support building a public prison to house these illegal immigrants in Evanston?

    Probably not.

  2. Wyoming’s Constitution (Article 6, Section 3) holds that “Electors in all cases except treason, felony or breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest on the days of election during their attendance at elections, and going to and returning therefrom.”

    Wyoming allows noncitizens to vote in local elections.

    Water districts can call elections.

    Many water districts in Wyoming are rated for less than 100 gallons/day.

    Voting shares for a water district can be sold for $1.00.

    So . . . a water district can call an election when they want. Shareholders are empowered to walk to their voting place & back unencumbered.

    Bond holders for CoreCivic won’t like that uncertainty. CoreCivic loses interest when 30 water districts offer inmates voting shares for $1.00 each.

    Goodbye CoreCivic-