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California Pushes to End Private-Prison Managment of Immigrant Detention Centers

The centers have become notorious for their dangerous conditions across the state.

A man has his fingerprints electronically scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait for their turn at the U.S. Border Patrol detention center in Nogales, Arizona. (Jeff Topping/Reuters)

Last year, Raúl Ernesto Morales-Ramos, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, died of intestinal cancer while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Adelanto Detention Center in Southern California. The center is operated by the private prison company GEO Group, whose medical care provider failed to diagnose or treat Morales-Ramos’ cancer until authorities noticed his “unusual bleeding,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He was taken to a hospital and died three days later.

Ramos’ seemingly preventable death provoked outrage among immigrant-rights activists in California. Now, a week after the U.S. Justice Department announced that it is phasing out contracting with private prison companies, California is looking to follow its lead by ending the operation of detention centers for suspected undocumented immigrants statewide by private prison companies.

On Tuesday, the California State Assembly passed the Dignity not Detention Act, which would ban cities and counties from contracting out the management of these detention centers to private prison companies. The bill now returns to the state Senate, where it was initially approved, and will, if passed, go on to Governor Jerry Brown’s office for signature or veto.

The bill would also require localities holding undocumented immigrants on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement to adhere to ICE’s best-practice standards. This portion of the law is designed to ensure that those in custody have access to medication and legal counsel, and allow them to sue centers for violations of these standards.

The proposed legislation would affect thousands of undocumented immigrant families across California. According to the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, 62 percent of all beds in these centers nationwide are operated by for-profit companies. And in California, this proportion is even more pronounced, with 85 percent of all detainees (roughly 3,700 people) stuck in just four privately run detention facilities, according to the LA Weekly.

Privately operated detention centers can be major cash cows for cities and counties. ICE contracts with municipalities to hold undocumented non-citizens on its behalf; they, in turn, outsource detention-center operations to private prison companies, whose cost-cutting measures—such as cheap food and scaled-back health care provisionsbring in more municipal revenue.

In a public letter opposing the state bill, Adelanto city council member John R. Woodard estimated that the city could lose up to $35 million per year in revenue were its contract with GEO group to end.

The bill’s original sponsor, Ricardo Lara, a Democrat and state senator from Southeast Los Angeles, believes that cost is worth it.

“The Dignity not Detention Act takes a stand against the mass incarceration of immigrants in detention facilities and inhumane immigration detention conditions,” said Lara to the Los Angeles Times in April. “Our state and local governments should not be complicit in this awful practice of profiting off of human suffering.”

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.