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.

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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.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Excellent piece, Mr. Drake. Thank you. One point: one difference between a detention center and a prison is that people in prisons have been charged and then convicted of a crime in a court of law. In a detention center, all of those steps may be absent. A lot, probably most, of the inmates are placed in detention on SUSPICION of being in the country illegally, which has been a civil violation or misdemeanor. Trump policies have been changed to criminalize lacking proper papers. As people who have not been charged with a crime, it has been interpreted that they also do not have access to due process, which protects those who have been charged. We are trampling all over the rights of people to fill the coffers of private prison companies, whose profits soar the worse they treat inmates. And finally, people showing up for immigration hearings that were scheduled had been above 90% before ICE began arresting people at their hearings. It is beyond insane to use taxpayer money to keep people in prison instead of letting them comply with judicial orders on their own and work and pay taxes in the meantime. Private immigration prisons are a huge waste of money and energy with no justification and lots of violation of human and civil rights. Participating in that will be a terrible stain on Wyoming far into the future and lets legitimate businesses know that we are not a place they would want to locate.

  2. I have heard this too many times:

    “Many have been living in this country for years, paying taxes, raising families and doing jobs most
    Americans don’t want.”

    The old “Jobs-Americans-Don’t-Want” talking point. That’s the lazy-thinkers trope.

    Outside of most ag work, Americans regularly do every job immigrants do. I am surrounded by American landscapers, housekeepers, and construction workers in Jackson. Python programming? Americans do it.

    Remember the people who swore they couldn’t find any Americans for their jobs during the great recession with 12% unemployment (17% for African Americans?). Donald Trump was one. Every golf course in Jackson ran to Mexico instead of Michigan to look for labor. American programmers were training their immigrant replacements (see; https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/us/last-task-after-layoff-at-disney-train-foreign-replacements.html).

    Right now we have 3% unemployment in America and employers are still finding new American labor and creating new American jobs. Employers decided that ex-cons, the long-term unemployed, the disabled, LGBTQ Americans, and old people were actually capable and interested in doing many of the jobs “Americans don’t want”. Higher wages, a limited applicant pool, and different hiring standards will do that. Employers who compete for American labor will find it.

    Most jobs that Americans really don’t want are jobs that America really doesn’t need. Do we really need another fast-food business that only hires desperate immigrant labor and pays substandard wages? No.

    Let’s not forget that all those previously unemployed and ignored Americas are now paying taxes and being productive. By having fewer immigrant workers in the marketplace, the Americans’ prospects improved. Laws of supply and demand are pretty simple.

    Should we welcome new legal immigrants to America? Surely some. Should we reward illegal immigrants with green cards before those who have been waiting legally in their home countries? Perhaps. I can argue in favor of it but I don’t need lies about “jobs Americans don’t want” to support my reasoning. Or any other lies.

    1. You are limited by what you see. Go to Salinas, or Dixon, or Lodi, or Yuma, or Lubbock. Do you like strawberries, or lettuce, or squash, or tomatoes? They are labor-intensive crops that require significant manual labor to cultivate and bring to market. The vast majority of that labor comes from migrant workers because (white) Americans won’t do the work.

      1. In regards to Romano Nickerson’s comment:

        “You are limited by what you see. …….The vast majority of that labor comes from migrant workers because (white) Americans won’t do the work.”

        Did you read my comment?

        I said: “Outside of most ag work,……” That would be agriculture work (ranches, farms, meat processing plants).

        The fact is that the vast majority of immigrants are NOT doing ag work. If the detention center gets built, how many illegal immigrants being sent to Evanston, WY will be ag workers? One out of a thousand? The topic is about the center in Evanston, WY, not a center in Texas.

        Most Americans don’t do ag work because there’s no reason to. There are better jobs. Most ag work pays poorly, has poor working conditions, is in the middle of nowhere far from metropolitan areas when the majority of Americans live, often has a poor safety record, is often seasonal or temporary work with odd hours; and lastly, it isn’t as attractive as other jobs which are better suited to the needs of families.

        Cheap immigrant labor discourages innovation. The USA needs to be at the forefront of automation; not practicing .pre-industrial methods of operation. China will own the technology and eat our lunch if we keep thinking that underpaid labor is the key to our future ag industry. The growth plan for too many businesses in the USA is to export jobs and import labor. Why should Americans support that?

        The ag industry is heavily subsidized by American taxpayers. It pollutes, it wastes water, Grows crops in the desert that we don’t need. And the ag industry has been screwing over workers since the days of slavery. Their modus operandi hasn’t changed much. It has a shameful history that lingers throughout their industry today. No reason to let their poor behavior continue.

        Most immigrants have no desire to do farm, ranch, or meat processing work. They only do it because they have to, and because the industry caters to them. It doesn’t cater to Americans. I favor giving legal immigrants the opportunity to do ag work if they are given appropriate compensation, appropriate resources (housing, etc), and safe working conditions.

        According to the New York Times in 2011, farm worker wages and benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables cost the average household $38 a year. Consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples are giving 30 cents to the farmer and 10 cents to the farm worker; those spending $2 for a head of lettuce are giving 50 cents to the farmer and 16 cents to the farm worker. (see: https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/08/17/could-farms-survive-without-illegal-labor/the-costs-and-benefits-of-a-raise-for-field-workers)

        Hopefully, you will support higher wages for farm workers. And higher prices for consumers. If the average household accepted a $50 increase in their annual cost of produce, we could double the wages of farm workers. That’s less than $1 a week out of your pocket. Maybe Americans would be more interested in more of those ag jobs if wages matched the nature and value of the work.

      2. Romano Nickerson:

        More proof that you may be “limited by what you see”. According to the liberal LA Times (story published 11-9-19), some American workers are applying for jobs at American farms. But, it looks like some farms are trying their best not to hire them. That’s just like Jackson’s golf courses, hotels, roofing, concrete, drywall, and landscaping companies. And just like Donald Trump golf resorts.

        “….violations included failure to pay minimum wage, missing paychecks, unlawfully rejecting U.S. workers,…”

        https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-11-09/farm-workers-recruited-from-mexico-lost-wages

        They are also “adding more strain to the affordable housing gap” according to the story, and facing health and safety issues. Sounds just like Jackson.

  3. I can’t help but think of the $9 million medium security prison in Hardin MT that has never been opened. It was to be a prison run by a private company from CA at one time during it’s demise.
    i think the town of Evanston and the county of Uinta could be left with the same problem and worse.