Large Prison Company Sues California Over Ban on Private Detention

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GEO Group Inc. is suing to block AB 32 — a new law aimed at phasing out for-profit prisons and detention centers.  (John Moore/Getty Images)

One of the nation’s largest private prison companies is suing to block a new state law that aims to phase out for-profit immigration detention centers and prisons in California.

The GEO Group Inc. argues that AB 32, which went into effect Jan. 1, interferes with federal government operations including immigration enforcement. The company maintains that, as a federal contractor, it has immunity from from state control.

“The unlawful effect of AB 32 is to undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration laws,” according to the complaint, filed on Monday in federal court in San Diego.

The Florida-based corporation estimates it will lose $250 million per year in revenue if it's forced to close its seven facilities in the state as their contracts expire.

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State Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who authored the bill, said California will prevail because states have the authority to regulate industries within its borders. He pointed to longstanding reports, including by government watchdogs, about substandard conditions, abuses and deaths at privately-run facilities.

“I put my money on California here. We have a constitution on our side,” said Bonta. “States clearly have the ability and the right to stand up for and defend and protect their people and ensure their health, safety and welfare.”

A spokesperson with GEO Group defended the company's operations, saying its facilities "comply with performance-based standards."

“As a service provider to the government, our only mission is to deliver top-rated services to those entrusted to our care as they go through their immigration proceedings," said the GEO Group spokesperson in a statement.

The legal challenge comes just days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) entered into multibillion-dollar contracts with GEO Group and two other private prison companies to keep running detention centers for as long as 15 years, with a combined total of 5,200 beds in the state.

GEO Group currently operates two immigration detention centers in Adelanto (San Bernardino county) and Bakersfield. Under the new agreement with ICE, the company plans to add an additional 2,150 beds by using three other California prisons it owns in the Central Valley town of MacFarland and another in Adelanto, according to a company press release.

Immigration advocates lambasted the deals, signed just days before the new law went into effect, as an attempt to circumvent AB 32. Both California U.S. Senators and 19 other democratic members of Congress also raised their own concerns that ICE “streamlined” its solicitation process and gave unfair advantage to the companies already running immigration facilities in the state.

GEO Group’s lawsuit, which names Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Attorney General Xavier Becerra as defendants, petitions the court to declare AB 32 as unconstitutional and to stop the state from enforcing it against the company. In addition, GEO Group seeks court validation of its immigration detention and prison contracts with the federal government.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office did not comment.

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman in Gov. Newsom’s office, said they will review the complaint.

“As our office has previously stated, for-profit prisons, including ICE-contracted facilities, run contrary to our values and have no place in California,” said Waters. “Governor Newsom signed AB 32 earlier this year to phase them out.”

With AB 32, California becomes the first state in the nation to ban both privately-run prisons and immigration detention centers.

The law prohibits companies from operating immigration detention facilities after their current contracts with ICE expire. AB 32 also bars the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from entering into or renewing contracts with private corporations to run prisons, with some exceptions.