Governor Weighs Whether to Bar Some Private Immigration Lockups

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An immigration detention facility.  (Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

Private prisons have been in the news a lot lately.

First, the Department of Justice announced it would stop using them, and soon after, the Department of Homeland Security said it would review whether hundreds of thousands of immigrants should be detained in private lockups overseen by the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division.

The state of California might beat them to the punch. A bill that would bar cities and counties from contracting with private prisons to hold immigrant detainees is sitting on the governor’s desk.

If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill, three facilities would be impacted by Senate Bill 1289: Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield and Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Holtville, in Imperial County.

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Together, the facilities can house around 3,000 people. All three are owned by local governments, but run by private prison corporations that contract with ICE to detain immigrants.

The bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would also impose more stringent standards on any remaining immigration centers hosted by local jurisdictions, including prohibiting segregated housing for LGBT inmates and requiring access to legal representation, translation services and medical care, including HIV and AIDS care.

Senate Bill 1289, by Sen. Ricardo Lara, would bar cities and counties from contracting with private prisons to hold immigrant detainees.
Senate Bill 1289, by Sen. Ricardo Lara, would bar cities and counties from contracting with private prisons to hold immigrant detainees. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

Grisel Ruiz, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said California has distinguished itself as a state that welcomes immigrants and should not allow local governments and corporations to profit off the detention of people waiting to have their immigration cases resolved.

"There's a huge problem when you monetize human beings, and in this case you are monetizing exceptionally vulnerable people," she said. "Asylum seekers, refugees, people who might have problems with -- English might be their second language, they might have very little education, most don't even have attorneys -- it really goes against our values that we have here as a state in California."

The publicly owned, privately run prisons wouldn't shut down overnight: If Brown signs the bill, cities and counties would be barred from entering into new contracts beginning in 2018. The largest facility, Adelanto, has a contract that runs through 2021.