ACLU Urges Biden Administration to Cut Ties with Private Prison Operation in Downtown San Diego
City of McFarland in Kern County Figures into For-Profit Operator GEO’s Scheme to Circumvent Biden’s Executive Order to End Renewals of Contracts
SAN DIEGO — Today, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC), ACLU Foundation of Southern California and ACLU Foundation of Northern California sent a letter to the Biden administration demanding that it close the Western Region Detention Facility – a privately run, 770-bed federal detention facility in downtown San Diego.
As part of an effort to reduce mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color, one of President Biden’s first official acts was to issue an executive order forbidding the Department of Justice’s renewal of contracts with private companies running federal detention facilities. In his Jan. 25 order, the president recognized the importance of reducing “profit-based incentives to incarcerate” people.
The Western Region Detention Facility is operated by GEO Group Inc., a Florida-based private prison company. The facility holds people in U.S. Marshals Service custody who are charged with committing federal offenses. GEO’s contract was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2021. However, the company announced today that it received a six-month contract extension. The company appears to be scheming to maintain its operations and profits by entering into an agreement with the City of McFarland, a town with less than 12,500 residents and more than 250 miles north of San Diego.
If the scheme is successful, McFarland will contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to detain people in the Marshals’ custody, and then McFarland will subcontract the work to GEO in return for $500,000 from the company. This will allow GEO to continue operating the Western Region Detention Facility.
This is the latest of similar pass-through schemes put up by a private prison corporation to skirt President Biden’s executive order. Another private prison company, CoreCivic, is attempting a similar scheme in Kansas, and has successfully done so in Ohio.
“Pre-trial incarceration flips the presumption of innocence on its head by punishing people before they’ve had their cases adjudicated. This puts their jobs at risk and adds pressure to their families who are already under stress from the prolonged absence of their loved ones,” said Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC. “Many people remain incarcerated simply because they cannot afford bail. The fact that private prison companies like GEO thumb their noses at policies designed to reduce incarceration proves that their primary concern is maximizing their taxpayer-funded profits, with no regard to the suffering they impose on our communities. We urge the administration to use this six-month extension to wind down GEO’s operation of the Western Region Detention Facility rather than using it as an excuse to cement its long-term future there.”
The ACLU’s letter also details a pattern of abuse by GEO at the Western Region Detention Facility and its other California facilities, including medical neglect and gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other local organizations have called to close the facility as well.
“GEO, as a private corporation, profits from harming people and communities everywhere. The Biden administration must join the national consensus and deliver on its promise to close this facility,” said Adriana Jasso, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.
The GEO-McFarland contract will not only violate the president’s executive order, it will allow a private prison company to recruit a cash-strapped municipality to exert influence over incarceration policies in another city 250 miles away, where the incarceration and its community impacts will actually occur.
This is not the first time GEO has turned to McFarland. As the California State Auditor found, GEO also used McFarland (and the City of Adelanto) to circumvent procurement law in the context of immigration detention. GEO used similar pass-through contracts with the city to operate an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Bakersfield.
“If GEO’s cynical ploy to continue operating the Western Region Detention Facility prevails, it would render President Biden’s executive order meaningless,” said Jordan Wells, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “The executive order is meant ‘to eliminate the use of privately operated facilities,’ not to continue their use under restyled contracts. The president must not forsake his commitment to remove profit motive as an obstacle to reducing incarceration in the United States.”
The ACLU and human rights groups throughout California call on the White House to stand by its policy and not allow private prison companies to circumvent its executive order, which was issued in response to local communities’ demands to end our country’s overreliance on systems of mass incarceration.
“GEO has a longstanding history of medical neglect, abuse and human rights violations in its facilities. The Biden administration must stand with our communities and follow through on its commitment to end for-profit private prisons by terminating its contract with GEO for the Western Region Detention Facility,” said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, regional policy director at Alliance San Diego.
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