California bans private prisons and immigration detention centers

Via San Francisco Chronicle | Alexei Koseff

Above: Miguel Katwaroo (left) teaches Robert Adame how to play guitar at a correctional facility in McFarland (Kern County) that is run by the GEO Group of Florida. Below: A minimum-security prison for women in Live Oak (Sutter County) was privately run in the early 2000s. Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation phasing out California’s use of private prisons.
1of3Above: Miguel Katwaroo (left) teaches Robert Adame how to play guitar at a correctional facility in McFarland (Kern County) that is run by the GEO Group of Florida. Below: A minimum-security prison for women in Live Oak (Sutter County) was privately run in the early 2000s. Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation phasing out California’s use Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — California will phase out its use of private prisons within eight years, ending a practice the state has relied on for three decades to manage an overflow of inmates that once reached twice what its prison system was designed to hold.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB32 on Friday, barring California from keeping prisoners in privately run lockups starting in 2028.

The state now houses about 1,600 inmates in three prisons in Kern and San Bernardino counties, run by the Florida-based GEO Group. Under the new law, California cannot renew those contracts, which expire in 2023, or enter into new ones after this year unless it needs them to keep the prison population under a court-ordered cap.

“These for-profit prisons do not reflect our values,” Newsom said in a statement.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, the Alameda Democrat who carried the bill, said the move would protect the health and safety of inmates who have been treated as commodities by private prison operators.

“We’re saying, ‘No more,’” Bonta said at a press conference Friday. “No more inhumane treatment of individuals in for-profit, private facilities. No more profiteering on the backs of Californians.”

AB32 also makes California the first state to ban the operation of privately run immigrant detention centers, setting up another potential clash with the federal government over immigration policy.

Activists hope the ban will ignite a national movement against private detention centers, which annually hold hundreds of thousands of immigrants who crossed illegally into the United States or are awaiting deportation.

The facilities have been criticized for poor conditions. The state attorney general’s office reported this year that immigrants were confined in their cells for up to 22 hours a day and had trouble accessing medical and mental health care, translators and lawyers.

Hamid Yazdan Panah, an attorney with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, said detainees are suffering every day and deserve to live in their communities while they fight their cases. He said advocates would push for their release when the detention centers close.

“This is a choice between detention and freedom,” he said.

But the law could backfire: Paige D. Hughes, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the federal government would likely have to move some or all of the 4,000 immigrants in California’s private detention centers to prisons and jails in other states.

“Thus, the only impact would be felt by the residents of California who would be forced to travel greater distances to visit friends and family in custody,” she said in a statement.

A lack of access to their lawyers would also make it difficult for potential deportees to win their cases.

Transferring immigrants to locally run detention centers in California, such as county jails, isn’t possible. A 2018 law prevents local governments in the state from entering into or renewing contracts with ICE to detain immigrants

“That’s why it’s so important that this is a movement, that other states stand up for the health, safety and welfare of their people and they prevent what we’re preventing,” Bonta said, so that there are not detention centers elsewhere where immigrants can be sent.

In a statement, the GEO Group, which also runs immigrant detention centers in California, said the company expects that “much if not all of AB 32 would be found unlawful by the courts.”

“States cannot lawfully pass legislation mandating the closure of federal facilities that displease them on the basis of ideological differences,” the statement said, though it did not specify whether GEO Group planned to sue.

Bonta’s bill emerged from a national campaign against private prisons that has grown in recent years from a fringe position to a mainstream liberal tenet.

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama’s Justice Department moved to phase out privately run prisons housing more than 22,000 federal inmates, a policy the Trump administration reversed six months later. Responding to an organized divestment push, half a dozen banks have announced in recent months that they will no longer provide financing to the industry.

Opponents complain that corporations motivated by profit have an incentive to support policies leading to more prison time for more people and to skimp on the services they provide to inmates.

Newsom joined critics during his gubernatorial campaign last year, arguing that for-profit prisons “contribute to over-incarceration.” In his January inaugural address, he promised to “end the outrage that is private prisons in the state of California once and for all.”

The first private lockup in California opened in 1986, as officials looked for ways to ease crowding at state prisons amid a rapid rise in the number of inmates. Their use has ebbed and flowed ever since, including a period when former Gov. Gray Davis planned to close all the private prisons in the state.

California increased its dependence on private lockups after a federal court ruled in 2009 that it was violating inmates’ constitutional rights by packing them into overcrowded state prisons. The court told California to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of intended capacity.

When he vetoed a proposed ban on private prisons by Bonta two years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown wrote that the state “needs to maintain maximum flexibility in the short term” to keep the inmate population within the court mandate.

But policy changes such as realignment, which shifted some lower-level offenders to county jails, and Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure that made it easier for some inmates to seek parole, have cut the number of prisoners — and with it, California’s reliance on private prisons.

The number of inmates held in privately run prisons has already fallen by more than half since Newsom took office in January. His administration brought back out-of-state prisoners from Arizona in June and ended a contract with a 700-bed lockup near Bakersfield in September.

Phasing out the remaining privately run prisons could cost California more than $100 million annually. The average cost of keeping an inmate in state prison has ballooned to more than $80,000, nearly three times the rate for private lockups.

But the new law will not completely push private prison operators out of the state.

GEO Group and the Tennessee-based CoreCivic manage dozens of city jails, county reporting centers and federal prisons in California. The state corrections department also contracts with the companies to run parole services, substance abuse treatment and transitional housing for more than 20 counties and state prisons.

There is also a 2,400-bed lockup in Kern County that California leases from CoreCivic for about $29 million a year. It is not covered by the law because the state runs the prison itself.

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