The debate over a proposed private prison in Evanston encapsulates the economic head scratching happening these days all over the country.

People need jobs, of that there’s no question. But what are communities willing to do, and to sacrifice, to create them? Are there any limits to what residents and their elected officials will accept or actively court to improve the local economy? At what point, and to what degree, does a populace abandon its principles for gainful employment?

These aren’t questions with easy answers.

One of the challenges comes in defining local control. The Evanston prison situation pits the economic values of a municipality against the cultural values of much of the rest of Wyoming’s citizenry.

Advocates of the proposed project prefer to call it an “immigration detention center,” but I will refer to it as a private prison, because that’s unquestionably what it is. There’s no reason to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.

A facility that keeps people locked inside, has guards to enforce the rules and is surrounded by high chain link fences and security cameras, is a prison.

Nevermind that most of the prisoners are not criminals, and have not been charged with any crime. Due process or not, imprisonment is imprisonment.

One of the fundamental questions in Evanston is whether it’s solely the state’s responsibility to supervise a portion of the populace that society deems necessary to lock up, or whether a private corporation can set up shop and run the place under federal rules without the state’s interference. Under Wyoming law, it’s not clear whether such a facility — under the guise of free enterprise — needs permission from anyone in the state.

Some Evanston residents admit that the prison isn’t the kind of economic diversity they want, but it’s what’s available. “When I first heard about it, I was pretty skeptical,” Uinta County Commissioner Wendell Fraughton told the Casper Star-Tribune. But after talking to company officials and doing his own research, he concluded, “I think it will be a good boost for the county.”

Management Training Center, a Utah-based company with private prisons operating in several states, is still far from closing a deal to build the 500-bed facility. First they have to win a contract with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants suspected of being in the United States illegally.

But the proposal already has the unanimous support of the Evanston City Council and Uinta County Board of Commissioners. At question, though, is whether the state has a role in reviewing the project. All prisons in Wyoming must be approved by a majority of the five elected state officials: the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction. However, city and county officials contend that as a “detention center” the proposed compound isn’t subject to such pesky prison rules. There’s that pig again.

Local officials are gung-ho about the prison. They talk glowingly about MTC as the area’s economic savior, that will bring 100 to 120 jobs with starting wages around $21 an hour many of which only require a high school education.

Opponents, however, don’t see prison guard as a career aspiration for their children or grandchildren, and wonder if that’s the kind of work that’s likely keeping young people in Wyoming. They’ve organized under the banner of the WyoSayNo Coalition, which includes the ACLU of Wyoming, Juntos, The University of Wyoming group MEChA, the Equality State Policy Center and the Immigration Alliance of Casper. They argue that most of Wyoming is loath to relive the shame of confining Japanese-Americans at the Heart Mountain internment camp during World War II.

The WyoSayNo Coalition’s most compelling material may be MTC’s performance record elsewhere.

Here are just a few examples:

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General Office made surprise visits to the MTC’s Otero, N.M., prison and discovered inmates being held in solitary confinement without explanation, a mechanism of appeal or documentation of why they were being punished.
  • The Otero center allegedly had mold and peeling paint in restrooms, and spoiled food and moldy produce in the kitchen. An MTC prison in Texas has been accused of understaffing, serving tainted food and of the sexual abuse of inmates by two guards.
  • In 2015 a riot broke out at an MTC prison in Raymondville, Texas, with nearly 2,400 inmates over what were described as “uninhabitable conditions.” Almost 400 jobs were lost by local residents when the prison was closed.
  • In a national report the ACLU claimed MTC facilities lacked food, had long waits for medical attention, difficulty obtaining necessary medications and retaliation from guards for complaints. MTC has denied all charges of mistreating immigrant inmates and says it provides nutritious meals, timely medical and dental care and trains its staff “to respect detainees.”

Some officials have buried their heads in the sand about the complaints. “Undoubtedly with these kinds of things there will be issues that arise that will have to be dealt with,” Mayor Kent Williams told the Star-Tribune. “But I’m not going to judge them for that and trust that they will respond appropriately.

“Does that shine negatively on MTC in my mind?” he added. “No, it doesn’t.”

But it should. Elected officials have an obligation to put public safety concerns before profits. It’s outrageous for Williams to say he’s not going to judge a company with such a poor record and just trust MTC to do the right thing. Such an approach would never be satisfactory for an agreement between a municipality and a corporation contracting to provide services.

Not surprisingly, given the diverse opinions on the subject, the Uinta County Herald’s letter to the editors section has seen a spirited debate about the MTC proposal. I agree wholeheartedly with a UW student, Tyler Duncil, who wrote in a guest column, “Corrections should not be a for-profit model. It is a crime-and-punishment institution. The ‘solution’ that MTC is pushing forward should not be enacted.”

Support Drake’s Take with a tax deductible donation today

Applying the principles of private free market capitalism to the fundamentally public responsibilities of criminal justice and immigration perverts these complex functions into a single overarching goal: bring in more inmates and make more money. But given the volatility and divisiveness of the nation’s immigration policies, betting on a future of full ICE jails may not be financially prudent.

Approving a private prison to house illegal immigrants could bring more jobs into southwest Wyoming for a limited time, but the chance of long-term success is highly questionable. More likely, I think, officials would end up looking for a new tenant and a new use for a building they could regret throwing their weight and money — as well as a community’s economic hopes and dreams — behind.

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...

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. As others have noted, the practical problems with this idea are overwhelming.

    But perhaps more importantly, as a matter of morality, the “business” of imprisoning people must return to its former status as a purely governmental function. The concept of privatizing prisons is a corrupting notion from the outset. The perverse incentive to generate business income necessarily conflicts with the goal of successfully rehabilitating prisoners. Successful reformation of prisoners leads to less business income. Longer sentences and recidivism generate more private income. Such a model is untenable from its inception.

    The fact that this particular prison is apparently geared to warehouse INS detainees does nothing to assuage my opposition to allowing private persons or for-profit corporations to perform the uniquely governmental function of taking, or exercising authority over, the very liberty of another human being. The abolition of slavery requires no less.

    Just today there is another news story of an individual held in shackles for 18 days by a private company paid to provide transport services for interstate extradition. Turns out the car he was accused of stealing wasn’t really stolen and he committed no crime; charges were dismissed. Did the private company have any incentive to correct the issue and jeopardize getting paid?

    There are moral issues that trump so-called economic development.

  2. I’ve lived in a few towns that had a prison as their main economy. You know what i’ve never seen? happy prison guards. Or seen them outside of their work in general. Hope the people of evanston like works thats utterly miserable, pays crap, has no time off, and will forever mark them as having collaborated with an institution that will unquestionably be cursed at in the future. But hey JOBS JOBS JOBSJOBSJOBS!

  3. No good can come from repeating the horrors of Heart Mountain with another ethnic group. MTC has been involved in private prisons of various purposes all over the country, and it is near impossible to find a success story. The Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU are currently involved in law suits in various locations, one of the worst being an MTC mental institution in Mississippi. The prisons are understaffed, they require slave labor from the prisoners, there are several instances of wrongful deaths and many sexual assault accusations, inmates have resorted to starting fires in their cells in an attempt to get medical care, and some are run by gangs instead of hired personnel. The wages in Mississippi are $12 an hour, not the $21 promised to Evanston. The national fascination with mistreating immigrants is likely to end with the Trump administration, and then what happens to this ugly, single purpose building at the entrance to a beautiful recreation area?

    This is not just a Unita County issue. Legitimizing locking people up on the suspicion of a civil offense and then denying them due process because they have not been arrested or convicted of a crime, is an outrageous attack on all we hold dear in America. Allowing that to happen in our state says that we have no standards about the kinds of activities or the quality of companies we will allow in our state. It is blaring a warning to legitimate companies that Wyoming is not the place for them to set up business because our standards are so low. It tells people who might want to move here that we don’t value human rights or American ideals and they should probably find another place to go. If we are serious at all about trying to grow and diversify the economy, then state officials need to assert their authority over proposed prisons and prevent this private prison company with such an awful reputation from coming to Wyoming.

  4. There is a private for profit 464-bed prison sitting empty a hundred miles north of Cody . It’s near Hardin Montana and is called the Two Rivers Detention Center. It was sold to Montana as an economic development project in an area that needed it , being surrounded by the Crow Indian Reservation poverty sink.. The project was backed by a bond-issuing capital investment group out of Texas ; the architect had an interest ; and the chosen private commercial operator of the prison out of Louisiana also had skin in the game. It was supposed to create 100 new jobs.
    That Two Rivers prison ended up costing the city of Hardin $ 600,000 out of pocket, and the current debt on unpaid bonds and interest is now over $ 40 million and climbing. The prison was completed in 2007 , and defaulted in 2008 for lack of inmates from ANY federal, state, or local entity , or Tribe. Over the years it has housed prisoners off and on. It has burned thru five directors. All the jobs created in the pastd ecade were given to workers imported from Texas and Louisiana ( duh! ) , not local hires. At one time it was proposed as a facility to warehouse sex offendors from all over the West.
    In further desparation , the Hardin City Council actively sought to market Two Rivers as the relocation center for the entirety of the political prisoners held at Guantanamo when Obama campaigned on closing the Cuban prison camp. That went nowhere. Then they got swindled to the tune of $ 1 million by a dubious Serbian immigrant from Southern California a year later. In a supreme irony, That guy used the last name Hilton but as it turned out he used a lot of aliases. There was a tangible offer to use the prison for a movie set… I recall it being a Stephen Seagall shootemup.
    Two Rivers opened again for the last time in 2014 and briefly stocked up on surplus Native American prisoners from jails in North and South Dakota before closing in 2016, and is currently empty, with no prospects . Montana Senator Steve Daines keeps nagging the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take over the facility and use it as an omnibus corrections center for the nation’s Native penal miscreants, but that is getting zero traction.
    A notable sidebar to this tale of a cursed private prison project is the original local spearhead of Two Rivers hired to oversee the building and initial operation of the facility left under a cloud in 2008 , and resurfaced in Cody as the director of the Forward Cody economic development organization where he has been for nearly ten years.

    All this should serve as a warning to the good people of Evanston who appear to be on the verge of doing a bad thing. Private for profit prisons have an extremely bad record. They are dubious at best , corrupt at worst, or even Faustian . America has the highest per capita incarcerationr ate on the planet, and that is nothing to be proud of, especially when for profit prisons are huge part of the problem not the solution of administering the justice system.

    The Evanston ICE facility is in fact a prison …if it walks like a duck in orange coveralls, quacks like a duck in orange coveralls ( ¿ habla español, Señor Duck ? ) , then it’s a prison. Run from Utah. What it’s not is good economic devlopment. Don’t go there, Evanston . You are being hornswaggled. Trust me on that… we’ve seen this movie before.