News that a for-profit immigration jail proposed for Uinta County is looking to double its capacity may have the project’s advocates feeling twice as good about its prospects.
A facility filled with more prisoners and more employees will automatically lead to a bigger tax base and more money flowing into the local economy, right?
Not necessarily. And even if it does, it’s far from the only consideration at stake. If I was a Uinta County commissioner or Evanston City Council member — both bodies have thus far embraced the private prison — I’d be plenty worried about getting stuck with a giant albatross. The idea might look good on paper, but the outcome would likely be far from what residents want.
Two corporations have separately dangled the prospect of creating more than 100 new jobs if they open a 500-bed facility in the county, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has now upped the capacity to 1,000 beds.
But officials should scrutinize the proposal beyond its promise of jobs. It’s not difficult to see why rural communities like Evanston are suddenly being offered the “opportunity” to host even more undocumented immigrants. More states are saying no to the controversial facilities, forcing companies to look elsewhere. California lawmakers recently joined Illinois in passing a ban on new construction of private prisons. And make no mistake, that’s precisely what these “detention centers” are.
People are brought to such facilities in handcuffs or shackles. The buildings are surrounded by tall chain-link fences topped with coiled razor wire, and the only time detainees get out is when ICE or the U.S. Marshals Service escorts them to court. If that’s not a prison, I don’t know what is.
Companies that built their fortunes constructing and operating private prisons found their markets collapsing earlier this decade, thanks to reduced crime rates and fewer communities willing to turn their correctional duties over to corporations whose primary interest is turning a profit, not public safety.
More than 200 immigration prisons are located throughout the U.S. Of those three-fifths of the roughly 40,000 inmates are held in privately operated facilities.
The political war over immigration has heated up since President Donald Trump’s administration took over in 2017. The federal government has increasingly turned to private prisons to hold thousands of otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Many have been living in this country for years, paying taxes, raising families and doing jobs most Americans don’t want.
These civil detainees are often housed alongside inmates who have committed more serious crimes. And they can be kept indefinitely; some have been waiting for a hearing up to four years, according to the group Freedom for Immigrants. That’s unconscionable.
Hopefully, this divisive conflict over immigration status and rights won’t last forever. Eventually, I believe, there will be a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants now in this country, and prisons like the one proposed in Uinta County will sit mostly idle or close their doors.
The county owns 1,000 acres east of Evanston, near Bear Ridge State Park. The funding scheme advanced by the area’s first private prison suitor, Management Training Corporation, was to lease a portion of the property and build the facility by securing bonds through an economic development agency.
The county would then own the building once the bonds are paid off. Do officials have a plan about what to do with a prison if it is abandoned?
After two years of pursuing an ICE contract, MTC bailed on the project in late July. A few weeks earlier, activists chained themselves to a fence at the company’s corporate headquarters in Centerville, Utah, in a protest of its immigration prison business. Soon MTC announced it would cease building immigration prisons and focus on other business interests.
Into the void left by MTC stepped CoreCivic, the nation’s leading operator of private immigration prisons. CoreCivic was eager to take advantage of ICE’s plan to build an immigration jail within 180 miles of Salt Lake City, where civil detention hearings are held. Evanston probably looks like a gold mine to the company.
County and city officials didn’t tell the public that MTC had bailed and a new corporation stepped in; WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham broke the story. He has since reported that county officials toured CoreCivic’s prison near San Diego, the Otay Mesa Detention Center, at the public’s expense.
I imagine the officials got to see Otay in a fine light. But life for many inmates at the prison is far from rosy, and Uinta County leaders need to seriously consider alleged abuses of prisoners’ rights as they determine if this is the type of “economic development” they really want.
CoreCivic prisons in states including California, Georgia, Florida and Texas have been sued over issues including forced inmate labor and lack of adequate medical care.
A class-action lawsuit regarding confinement at Otay is pending in San Diego federal court. It alleges that immigrants are paid at most $1.50 per day, and sometimes not at all, for their work as kitchen staff, janitors, barbers and other positions.
So much for the idea that Evanston-area residents will be hired to do more than guard prisoners, if they obtain any employment at all.
The lawsuit claims that facility staff threatened some detainees with solitary confinement or revoking visitation rights if they didn’t want to work. Money earned from this forced labor, the suit contends, can only be spent at the prison’s commissary, which sells basic necessities like soap and toilet paper that aren’t provided to all inmates.
In March 2017, the widow of a Mexican detainee sued the federal government, alleging that Otay staff repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical care. Weeks later, the man died in a hospital from complications of pneumonia.
Otay was also sued by the American Civil Liberties Union’s San Diego chapter in 2007 for similar issues of indifference, medical negligence and and threats of retaliation. CoreCivic settled that lawsuit in 2010, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to uphold federal prison medical care standards.
Political pressure exerted by private immigration prison opponents has led six of the country’s largest banks to stop making loans to CoreCivic and GEO Group, which together comprise 80% of the private market. CoreCivic’s stock price has plummeted 30% since June, and Fitch Ratings recently lowered the company’s debt rating and its outlook to “negative.”
Is this really the type of partner that Evanston and Uinta County want to tether their economic fortunes to?
A private immigration prison near Evanston sounds like a bad investment for residents, both economically and as part of the community’s social responsibilities.
Here’s one more ominous example of why county and city officials should think twice before buying the proposed prison hook, line and sinker. Last November, ICE and CoreCivic began requiring church volunteers who visited prisoners at Otay to sign a form that forbids them from talking to the press about conditions inside. SOLACE (“Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears”) members refused to comply.
What kind of a prison won’t let visitors tell the public what they see? Why do CoreCivic and ICE have to hide behind such secrecy? Uinta County and Evanston officials may put blinders on, but I doubt residents will join them in welcoming this controversial for-profit business with open arms.