Taft Correctional Institution,” BrewBooks

December 23, 2019; Los Angeles Times

California’s statewide ban on private prisons seems well on its way to setting up numerous public battles over the interplay between state and federal law.

As NPQ reported in October when it was signed, Assembly Bill 32 prohibits new contracts for private prison facilities as of January 1st of this year, and requires existing facilities to close by 2028. The major corporate players in private prisons wasted no time indicating that they didn’t intend to abide quietly. Within two weeks of the law being passed, the Los Angeles Times reported on new federal calls for proposals for “turnkey ready” private immigration detention facilities in California.

Sure enough, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) signed contracts for four new detention facilities at the end of December 2019, just days before AB32 went into effect. As a result, activists and state legislators are claiming the contracts violate the intent of the law and are calling on the governor to stop the new facilities from being constructed.

Each new contract is with a company currently operating an existing facility—GEO Group, CoreCivic, and Management and Training Group—all of whom submitted proposals within a two-week time period, which has legislators also questioning whether ICE followed federal procurement policy in the award process.

One of the companies receiving a contract, GEO Group, meanwhile, has not been sitting idle during the controversy. The company filed suit against California, claiming that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the federal government’s legal ability to detain migrants suspected of entering the US illegally. GEO Group operates 130 private prison facilities nationally; their new California contract would house 2,150 immigrant detainees. Four company facilities were charged with numerous abuses of detainees in 2019 in a report by the Office of the Inspector General.

All of this sets up what is likely to be a lengthy public and legal battle between California, corporations like GEO Group, and the federal government over the private prison industry. As NPQ covered extensively last year, private prison companies have responded to civic and political pressure by setting up a foundation to counter claims of abuse and to influence the narrative on private prisons, not to mention promote their financial interests.

It seems like the push for narrative control is part of the equation in the new round of lawsuits. The legal system will likely settle the question of whether ICE acted improperly in awarding its new contracts in California. The courts may even take up the constitutional question raised in GEO Group’s newest lawsuit. These lawsuits touch on questions of contract law, commerce, and state and federal legal authority over corporate financial interests. These are questions of power and money, not human rights, human dignity, or race and injustice—the issues that motivated the ban on private prison facilities. All of which means public pressure regarding immigrant detention, private prison abuses, and the extent of US imprisonment remain vital. As is nearly always the case, the legal battles are just half of the picture.—Ellen Davis