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Is ICE Circumventing State Law By Contracting Directly With Private Prison Groups?

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Jose Huerta
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The immigrant detention facility in Adelanto was recently cited in a massive lawsuit decrying conditions for immigrants in privately-run centers. The city of Adelanto terminated its agreement with ICE earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean the center will close – in fact, it may even expand, thanks to a direct contract between ICE and the private prison company GEO Group. 

In September of 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General paid an unannounced visit to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center.

Their report found “serious violations” throughout the facility. They documented medical staff making inmates wait months or even years to receive basic dental care as well as inmates making makeshift nooses to hang themselves in their cells.

According to the report, three inmates have died at the facility since 2015, and seven inmates attempted suicide between December 2016 and October 2017.

It’s unknown exactly why the city of Adelanto terminated its contract with ICE – City Manager Jessie Flores, who made the decision, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews – but it may have been from the bad press associated with this report.

Luis Nolasco is a policy advocate and organizer with the ACLU of Southern California.

He says the center is poised to stay open due to a direct contract between ICE and GEO. They’re able to do that through something called Federal Acquisition Regulations.

Nolasco: And so pretty much through there it allows the federal government to contract directly with agencies like GEO Group, who are the ones that run, it's one of the biggest private prison corporations in America. And the world really, because they just don't contract here in the U.S., they also have other prisons in like Australia and other places.

ICE is able to contract directly with GEO Group despite a California law limiting private prison companies in the state.

Nolasco: “And so, in California about two years ago we passed a law called SB29, Dignity Not Detention, that was aimed at limiting private prison contracts in the state of California. But the state law unfortunately was aimed at preventing localities within California, so we're talking about county governments and cities from entering into these contracts. And so under the law, right, there's nothing that would prevent federal government to go in through an agency or go in through like the Federal Acquisition Regulations to look into contracts and do direct contracts between the Department of Homeland Security which is ICE, a sub-arm of DHS, with these private prison companies.”

Nolasco says this private contract could lead to continued problems like the ones described in the Office of Inspector General’s report.

Nolasco: “So what we fear is the conditions and the health and overall safety of detainees at Adelanto just falling even below to what they currently are. There's been reports from the Office of Inspector General at DHS that have pretty much outlined how horrible the conditions are at Adelanto, and they've told ICE to better those conditions and they still, and you know this has been a thing that's been constant. So our worry is that without Adelanto being the middleperson, things are going to get worse at the facility.”

And this kind of contract isn’t isolated to Adelanto. It happened in Bakersfield as well, and it could happen in other places where cities terminate their agreements with ICE.

Nolasco: “So it's a tactic that, I think it's not just happening in Adelanto but it's a broader tactic that these facilities are engaging in with localities to try to get around some of the liabilities and lawsuits that we've been able to bring to the forefront.”

Jason Morin is a professor at Cal State Northridge who studies private prisons. He says this tactic by ICE and private prison companies is a way of circumventing SB29.

Morin: “And so what GEO was able to do was to renegotiate a new year-long contract with ICE. And in part, they were able to do that because they own the facility. So back in 2010, 2011 they purchased the detention facility directly from the city of Adelanto. Then in their new contract they argued that they have the resources and capacity to hold large number of detainees. So by making that argument, they were able to avoid facing open competition when they renegotiated that new contract. And they also argued that transporting immigrants to another detention facility would pose health risks for those detainees. So in fact it's really just business as usual, and so they're able to kind of circumvent the state law by directly working with the federal government.”

Morin also says the new contract actually opens up the facility to expansion.

Morin: “And so by working with ICE, they can essentially do that, they can expand their operations and there's good reason for them to do that, especially since you have an administration that has increased immigrant detention. So there are some statistics that came out showing that immigration detention has increased, especially due to ICE since Trump took office in 2016. And so what that's doing is increasing the supply, what that's doing is creating more opportunities for private prison companies to profit from the incarceration and detention.” 

Morin says the California legislature is considering a law that would phase out private prisons, which may or may not be signed by the governor. But he says it’s unclear if that will have any effect on institutions like Adelanto.

Morin: “But what is clear that the current administration - meaning the Trump Administration - will continue to lock up undocumented immigrants and private prisons will continue to profit from their detention.”

GEO Group and ICE declined interviews on this story, but ICE did confirm the new direct contract with GEO. After the nine-month contract period ends, the contract will go up for re-competition.   

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