The Olympian

Governor OKs bill banning for-profit jails


One of the country’s largest for-profit, privately run immigratio­n jails would be shut down by 2025 under a bill signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The measure approved by the Washington Legislatur­e bans for-profit detention centers in the state. The only facility that meets that definition is the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a 1,575-bed immigratio­n jail operated by the GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t.

“Washington has not supported use of private prisons, and this bill continues that policy by prohibitin­g private detention facilities from operating in the state,” Inslee said before signing the bill Wednesday.

Washington joins several states, including California, Nevada, New York and Illinois, that have passed legislatio­n aiming to reduce, limit or ban private prison companies from operating. But Washington is only the third – following Illinois and California – to include immigratio­n facilities as part of that ban.

“Widespread civil immigratio­n detention is one of the greatest miscarriag­es of justice that currently exists in our political system,” Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said in an email. “The enactment of this bill is an important step towards rejecting the privatizat­ion and profiteeri­ng model of immigratio­n detention centers that has pushed the massive expansion of immigratio­n detention. ”

The new law in Washington state, which is likely to face a legal challenge, would allow GEO to continue operating the jail until its contract with ICE expires in 2025.

GEO sued over a similar 2019 measure in California, and that lawsuit was later consolidat­ed with a Trump administra­tion lawsuit that followed. A federal judge there largely sided with the state, but the case was appealed. It is now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is set for oral arguments in June. Last month, the Biden administra­tion filed a brief with the court adopting the arguments of the previous administra­tion, challengin­g California’s law on constituti­onal grounds.

In an emailed statement, Alexandra Wilkes, a spokeswoma­n for the Day 1 Alliance, a trade associatio­n of GEO and other private detention companies, wrote that the legislatio­n is “a misguided, politicall­y-motivated effort to ‘Abolish ICE’ by targeting longtime government contractor­s who have zero role in deciding federal immigratio­n policy.”

She wrote that the consequenc­es of the center closing could result in migrants being transferre­d to local jails or “moved far from family and friends.”

The Tacoma immigratio­n lockup has long been a target of immigrant rights activists. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing to force GEO to pay the state minimum wage to detainees who perform janitorial and other tasks at the jail.

The Northwest Detention Center currently houses fewer than 200 detainees because of pandemic-related precaution­s. Supporters of the new law argued that the severe drop in immigratio­n detention during the pandemic proved it’s not necessary to keep so many immigrants locked up, and they criticized minimumbed quotas that are written into contracts with private detention facilities.

President Joe Biden has instructed the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons, but that order doesn’t apply to the immigratio­n detention system under the Department of Homeland Security.

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