_ Five days after a bill ending private prisons in the state was
signed into law, the Trump administration found a way to get around
, Capital & Main
LAST MONTH, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 32,
aimed at phasing out private prisons in the state beginning Jan. 1,
2020. “These prisons do not reflect our values,” Newsom said in a
signing statement. The bill passed by wide margins in both houses,
with 13 Republicans crossing party lines to support it. Under the law,
all four U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lockups that are
located in California would be gone in less than a year.
But the Trump administration is fighting back. Five days after Newsom
signed the bill, ICE found a way to get around it; the agency
announced its intent to issue new contracts by December 20, just
before AB 32 becomes law.
Under the ICE request for proposals, the agency would expand its
footprint in the state from more than 4,000 detention beds to 6,750.
It would also add comprehensive mental health programming at the
state’s largest detention center. Given the short deadline,
immigration rights activists point out, these contracts – including
the one for comprehensive mental health programming – would go to
firms with extensive records of abuse and neglect of detainees and
poor track records on mental health.
“They are certainly violating the spirit of the [federal
procurement] law,” said AB 32 author Assemblyman Rob Bonta
(D-Oakland), adding that ICE’s 18-day deadline for the receipt of
proposals, and its requirement that the facilities be in operation by
December 20, virtually ensure that the companies that currently hold
the contracts will win the bids.
“They’re ramming this through to throw a lifeline to a dying
industry,” Bonta said.
TWENTY-ONE CONGRESSPERSONS and senators have taken Bonta’s side.
Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, along with House
Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler and Homeland Security
Committee chair Bennie Thompson, wrote in a November 14 letter to ICE
that the request for proposals appears “designed to eliminate
meaningful competition in favor of three private corporations that
operate within California.”
ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes wrote in an email to Capital & Main that
the agency has done nothing wrong. “U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement remains compliant with federal contract and acquisition
regulations as we advertise opportunity notices and subsequently
implement the decision process.”
But on November 5, in an announcement of the company’s third quarter
performance, GEO Group CEO and chairman George Zoley all but assured
shareholders that at least some of the California contracts were in
the bag for GEO.
“This procurement is expected to result in new long-term contracts
starting in mid-December of this year,” Zoley said. “It involves a
re-bid of existing contracts at our Adelanto and Mesa Verde ICE
processing centers as well as other contractor-operated facilities in
The GEO Group is the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm and
currently holds two ICE detention contracts in California, a
nine-month-long agreement to operate Adelanto, a 1,940-bed facility in
the Mojave Desert, and a year-long contract for Mesa Verde with 400
beds in Bakersfield, which together are worth more than $82 million.
CoreCivic, GEO’s slightly smaller competitor, operates the nearly
1,000-bed Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, while Utah-based
Management and Training Corporation manages the 700-capacity Imperial
Regional Detention Facility in Calexico.
The ICE solicitation includes two additional opportunities that GEO is
poised to snag. The agency seeks to add 750 more beds than it
currently has in Northern or inland California, where GEO owns a
recently emptied 700-bed facility in the Kern County town of
McFarland. The mental health proposal is to be implemented at a
2,000-plus bed facility no more than 100 miles from Los Angeles —
which roughly describes the company’s Adelanto Detention Center.
An ICE spokeswoman didn’t answer emailed questions about why the
agency has proposed the mental health program and why it turned to the
private sector and not its own government-run ICE Health Services
Corps to operate it.
ICE’s proposed mental health program would add licensed clinical
staff and offer detainees art and music therapy, as well as substance
abuse and domestic violence counseling, according to the agency’s
request for proposals.
The mental health plan comes as the California attorney general;
Disability Rights California (DRC), an agency charged with
investigating facilities that care for the disabled; and the
Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General have all
slammed ICE and the GEO Group for mistreatment of mentally ill
detainees. Criticism has included charges of delaying and denying
proper health care and placing detainees in solitary confinement
because of their mental health conditions.
Disability Rights California spent four days at the Adelanto facility,
interviewing more than 100 detainees and reviewing documents, before
concluding in a March 2019 report that conditions at Adelanto
“result in the abuse and neglect of people with disabilities as
defined by federal law.”
WHILE DRC and others have stressed the need for better mental health
care, Dr. Altaf Saadi, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital
(and one of the Adelanto investigators), said she’s skeptical of the
initiative, in part because it would be a for-profit venture. She also
argued that the prison-like conditions prioritized disciplinary
practices over health care. “The approach to managing mental health
was a punitive one,” Saadi said.
Among the DRC’s findings:
•A guard pepper sprayed a Nigerian asylum seeker as he attempted to
hang himself in a solitary confinement cell.
•A former Northern California college student slit her wrists at
Adelanto; medical records indicated she didn’t tell mental health
workers about her suicidal thoughts because she feared being placed in
•GEO significantly underreports data on suicide attempts at
Adelanto. For instance, GEO reported no suicide attempts for the first
10 months of 2018, causing DRC to note, “Our investigation showed
this to be demonstrably false.”
Both DRC and the DHS’s Office of Inspector General noted that
homemade braided nooses hung from air vents in several Adelanto cells,
even after Nicaraguan detainee Osmar Gonzalez-Gadba hanged himself
with just such a noose in March 2017.
The IG report quotes a detainee who says, “The guards laugh at
[suicide attempts] and call them ‘suicide failures’ once they are
back from medical.”
Dr. Saadi argued that freeing mentally ill detainees from confinement
would be the best course, commenting that the crowding and sleep
deprivation they experience at Adelanto exacerbate mental health
issues. Even jails and prisons are more transparent than ICE
facilities, she claimed. “The mental health needs there are very
great,” noted Richard Diaz, a staff attorney with DRC, and an author
of the report. But, he said of Adelanto, “I just don’t think
it’s possible in a facility that’s run and designed like a
GEO ALSO RAN AFOUL of state authorities for patient deaths,
overmedicating patients, and unauthorized use of restraints, among
other violations, while operating state mental hospitals in Florida
and Texas in 2012. (Wellpath, formerly called Correct Care Solutions,
bought GEOCare, the company’s wholly owned healthcare subsidiary, in
2014. The company, which provides health care services at Adelanto,
has been sued more than 1,395 times in federal courts
according to documents the company turned over to Yahoo News in 2018.)
In an email, a GEO spokesman didn’t address the company’s record
on mental health. He referred Capital & Main to written responses to
the Department of Homeland Security IG’s report. Similarly, ICE
spokeswoman Hughes didn’t comment on GEO’s or any other
company’s fitness to provide mental health care.
Minju Cho, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, has
filed a Freedom of Information Act request for communications between
ICE and the three prison companies because, she said, “The manner
and the terms of the October 16 solicitation suggest there might be
coordination and collusion between them and ICE.” Cho argued that
the three companies that currently operate detention centers are
virtually the only ones that could provide the “turnkey”
facilities ICE requires by December 20.
Senators Harris and Feinstein, and the other members of Congress who
questioned the ICE action in their November 14 letter, echoed Cho’s
request for information about the contract solicitation.
Even if the ICE contracts are signed before AB 32 takes effect, a GEO
spokesman said in a written statement that its constitutionality will
ultimately be decided in the courts. “[B]ut until then we will
continue to provide safe, secure and humane care to individuals that
are being adjudicated under federal immigration law.” A Trump
administration lawsuit against the state would add another to more
than 60 legal battles between California and the federal government in
the past three years.
_Copyright Capital & Main. Reprinted with permission._
_Robin Urevich is a journalist and radio reporter whose work has
appeared on NPR, Marketplace, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Las