EVANSTON— Wyoming’s first private jail could resemble a warehouse or big box store, according to drawings corporate giant CoreCivic presented at a charged public meeting in Uinta County last week.
If built, it will have nearly 150,000 square feet of housing to hold up to 1,000 immigrants detained by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement from Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana. There will be a 2,500-square-foot chapel, a 2,300-square-foot library and a 3,500-square-foot courthouse where federal immigration judges will determine who may stay in the U.S. and who will be deported.
Two 16-foot-high fences topped with razor wire will surround the facility.
The presentation to a room of more than 200 local residents came as the jail proposal appears to be picking up steam after a long lull. CoreCivic has submitted an environmental assessment to the Department of Homeland Security, officials said at the meeting, and is waiting now for the green light to submit a project proposal.
In the meantime, representatives pitched the corporation to Evanston and Uinta County as an ethical company seeking to fulfill a government need in the most humane and safe way possible. Earnings reports, court filings and news accounts tell a more conflicting story — of a company that hauls in profits for shareholders but is repeatedly accused of prioritizing those earnings over people.
Divisions in the community over the project showed no signs of having cooled. During a public comment period citizens expressed support and gratitude to the prison company for choosing the struggling town. Others brought practical worries — will it be visible from the highway or a nearby park, will there be light pollution and undue pressure on city infrastructure? Some opponents just expressed contempt for the private prison industry as a whole.
“How do you sleep at night?” one angry resident asked the CoreCivic executives.
“I sleep very well,” CoreCivic Executive Vice President for Real Estate Lucibeth Mayberry said.
CoreCivic officials placed the future of the Evanston proposal squarely in the hands of the federal government and said that some uncertainty remains. The federal government could halt the bidding process or pick a different contender — though there has been no evidence other cities and companies are in competition with Evanston and CoreCivic.
Recent actions suggest both corporate executives and local officials anticipate the project will continue to advance, and perhaps quickly. County officials are in negotiations with a third party, a Texas-based financing company called Municipal Capital Markets Group, to buy 60 acres of sagebrush land next to Bear River State Park. MCM first came to the county commission with a previous prison company, Management Training Corporation. But MTC company suddenly backed out of the project over the summer, saying it wanted to focus on new business opportunities mostly outside of “corrections or detentions.”
At the meeting, Mayberry said Management Training Corporation had “turned over” the project to CoreCivic. Her company could buy or lease the land from MCM, Mayberry said.
CoreCivic is bigger than Management Training Corporation, and shows no indication of turning away from the lucrative immigration detention industry. CoreCivic has seen a surge in profits as the Trump administration has increased spending on immigration enforcement, according to an analysis of federal contracting data by Bloomberg Government.
CoreCivic has also faced a number of lawsuits related to its prison and immigration detention businesses, accusing it of human rights violations, forced labor and of running poor quality facilities. The list of litigation includes an ongoing class-action lawsuit from its own shareholders that accuses the company of inflating its value by claiming to run high-quality prisons, when in fact its facilities were unsafe.
“We believe the lawsuit is entirely without merit and intend to vigorously defend against it,” the company wrote in an October filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
When opponents in Evanston brought up the lawsuits and accusations, CoreCivic officials said they operated under ICE’s oversight. They pointed residents to the company’s code of ethics and a page on its website where the company contests criticism from politicians, media sources and increasingly, banks that choose to no longer finance the private prison industry.
Company representatives also sought to distinguish the immigration jail planned for Wyoming — which would hold “criminal aliens” whose chief crime is being in the country illegally, according to ICE — and other CoreCivic facilities that hold more hardened criminals and have more safety concerns.
ICE’s request for proposals calls for dorm-style housing, not cells. It also describes a need for “a special housing unit for administrative and discipline segregation.” Administrative segregation could include isolating immigrants for medical reasons or because a detainee requires protective custody. Disciplinary segregation is defined as “a unit housing detainees who commit serious rule violations.”
“We care for each person in our facility respectfully and humanely while they receive the legal due process to which they are entitled,” Mayberry told the crowd.
Sprawling for-profit incarcerator
CoreCivic is a publicly traded corporation responsible ultimately to its stockholders. The company is the U.S’s largest private owner of correctional facilities — prisons, detention centers and reentry centers like halfway houses — according to an annual SEC filing. In Wyoming, the company runs transitional housing in Cheyenne for Wyoming Department of Corrections inmates leaving prison. As the state’s prison population swelled to bursting in recent years, CoreCivic also entered a contract with WDOC to house inmates at a private prison in Mississippi.
The SEC filing also suggests CoreCivic may be the federal government’s largest landlord. “We also believe we are the largest private owner of real estate used by U.S. government agencies,” the filing states.
The company operates 51 corrections and detention facilities with room to incarcerate 73,000 souls. It is a profitable business. This year, the company had earned more than $360 million from its incarceration business by Sept. 30, according to a quarterly report. Bloomberg Government’s analysis found the company had seen a boost of $85 million from ICE’s increased spending on the detention and transportation of immigrants.
Mayberry earned at least $1.8 million in 2018, according to SEC filings. The company’s CEO, Damon Hininger, pulled in at least $3.9 million. At the Evanston meeting, company officials repeatedly emphasized that Hininger had begun with the company as a corrections officer and worked his way up. Hininger was a prime example of the chance for upward mobility within CoreCivic, they said.
The starting salary for a corrections officer at the proposed facility in Evanston is $52,000 a year with healthcare, dental and a 401(k). The salary number is set by the Department of Labor, company officials repeatedly said at the meeting, as opponents argued the company has offered far lower pay in other areas of the country.
Officials contend the endeavor will pump $20 million in salaries and benefits annually into Uinta County’s economy. The company’s presentation listed that figure, along with between $800,000 and $1 million in utility fees and $1 million in purchased goods and services as the chief benefits the county could expect to see from the facility.
For project supporters, those figures carry immense weight. Asking when the first job fair was to be held, Evanston resident Jonny Pentz told company officials “I’ll be there.”
The regional economy is the worst in the state, Uinta County Republican Party Chairman Karl Allred said. “We’ve got more things coming our way,” he said, referring to impending closures of some coal-fired power plant units. Coal facilities have long provided some of the best-paying jobs in the region. CoreCivic is offering more secure jobs than other big corporations operating in rural areas, Allred said: It’s “better pay than what they’re going to get at McDonalds or Walmart.”
CoreCivic has been accused of understaffing some of its facilities in order to lower operating costs and increase profits. A federal jury in Idaho and state officials in Tennessee have both found the company kept prisons in those states understaffed for years, increasing the risk of harm to the inmates in its care.
“We have said and acknowledged that there are difficulties in staffing,” Mayberry said, “particularly in rural facilities.” Because the Evanston facility would be for ICE detainees, she said, the work is safer, while the pay was higher under Department of Labor standards for the area. The company did not anticipate staffing difficulties here, she said.
Not for Evanston’s undocumented
ICE wants to build a new immigration jail in order to move detainees currently held in a number of county jails across the four-state enforcement area, consultant to CoreCivic Timothy Aitken said. Aitken introduced himself as a former ICE official. He now runs a consulting business and assists CoreCivic with federal partnership relations, according to the company. There are about 500 people currently held in jails that would instead be held in the facility, he said.
With an onsite courtroom, the facility will also be able to process immigration cases — primarily deportations — more efficiently. Detractors have noted, however, that Evanston’s geographic isolation and lack of immigration lawyers means few detainees will have access to legal representation, and deportations are hard to stop.
Though building new facilities is part of increased efforts to detain and deport undocumented immigrants in the U.S., ICE isn’t targeting Evanston’s immigrant population, officials said.
Britt Sloan, a bank manager in town, supports the project but has employees who “are part of the community that’s not here,” he said. It was a reference to a hispanic community that worries the presence of ICE agents would “somehow dramatically increase the chances of certain family members being captured and deported,” he said.
Company and local officials reassured Sloan that Evanston residents weren’t the targets.
“ICE … they’re not going to have people like combing the streets of Evanston,” Aitken said.
Local officials appear to have worried about a wave of outsiders coming to testify at the public meeting. “Uinta County residents will be given first priority to speak,” rules for public testimony on the meeting agenda read, along with “commenters should state their name and the city/town they reside in.”
In late October, WyoFile reported that immigration activist groups in Utah are organizing to oppose the facility in Wyoming. There was little sign of large organized opposition from out of state at the meeting, but a Salt Lake City activist challenged the idea that locals should take solace in the relative security of Evanston’s immigrants.
“It is my neighbors and friends that ICE will detain in this facility,” Kristin Knippenberg with the Salt Lake City Sanctuary Solidarity Network told the room. People had suffered and died in detention facilities, or suffered upon being returned to violent and poor countries of origin, Knippenberg said.
“It will be my friends and neighbors in Salt Lake City that will be sacrificed,” she said, “to create jobs in Evanston and profits for CoreCivic.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jonny Pentz’s first name, which was originally misspelled as Johnny. -Ed.