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.”
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.