Gov. Newsom can protect Californians by closing private prisons

By Grisel Ruiz, Special to CalMatters

Private prison corporations have a perverse financial incentive to perpetuate the injustice of mass incarceration and to prop up the Trump administration’s cruel deportation machine. 

With thousands of Californians currently suffering in for-profit facilities, Gov. Gavin Newsom must sign Assembly Bill 32. This proposal, by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, Democrat from Alameda, would eventually shut down all private prisons and immigration jails in California.

As an immigration attorney, I’ve spent years fighting to free people from detention. 

I’ve witnessed shocking abuses. And working with organizers and advocates, I’ve learned the very presence of detention centers in our state lets U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conduct more arrests and deportations. Closing them will help protect all Californians.

 Since 2010, 14 people have died in immigration detention in California. Suicides have shaken the largest private immigration jail in the state, located in Adelanto. Conditions there so alarmed the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector general that it issued a scathing report last year. 

The report found guards reportedly mocked survivors as “suicide failures.”  Doctors failed to check on people held in solitary confinement.

Some detained people saw their own teeth fall out due to lack of care. But the jail’s dentist “suggested detainees could use string from their socks to floss if they were dedicated to dental hygiene.”

This is what happens when human beings become commodities. While government and private jails are plagued with abusive conditions, it is immoral when corporations profit off of human suffering. 

Critics argue that shutting down these facilities could have unintended consequences. We must look carefully at the facts.

Trump’s former ICE director, Thomas Homan, has argued that closing private facilities would hurt immigrants. Homan threatened that the federal government would transfer detained immigrants out of state, further from loved ones and legal representation.

Putting aside the irony of Mr. Homan’s newfound concern for immigrant rights, our experience has shown that when Immigration and Customs Enforcement has less bed space, it is less likely to engage in large operations. 

Last year, after community advocacy led to the closure of detention centers in Contra Costa and Sacramento Counties, advocates with local “rapid response” networks observed a decrease in ICE arrests. A senior ICE official admitted to a reporter the closures had in fact impacted operations. 

Without a large number of beds near the offices where Immigration and Customs Enforcement processes people for arrest, it cannot carry out its operations at the speed and scale it wants. The agency issued a chilling proposal earlier this year to double detention capacity in California with 5,600 new beds, all near those offices. 

AB 32 would provide a critical check on this underhanded move. If built, these facilities will further entrench incarceration for generations to come.  

What about people who are currently detained?

Last year, a mix of organizing, legal advocacy, and bond fundraisers secured the release of many community members at the California facilities that closed.

Despite ICE’s claims, detention is wholly unnecessary. Immigration and Customs Enforcement frequently chooses whether or not to detain someone and must be held accountable with community pressure when they decide to separate families through detention. There are less expensive, community-based alternatives which keep families together.

Consider the story of Raúl, a community member whom ICE did transfer to Colorado after the Contra Costa facility closed. Raul is now free and reunited with his family, and supports closing immigration jails.

“There was no reason for ICE to detain me,” he said in an interview with California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance. “The fact that I’m out now fighting my immigration case proves it.”

We must honor Raul’s voice.

Admittedly, the problem is bigger than private detention. Whether run by a government or a corporation, whether targeting immigrants or citizens, mass incarceration inflicts pain on communities of color. 

AB 32 will help create space for the reality we need: a world free of mass incarceration, where we value people over profit.

Grisel Ruiz is supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters

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