The Biden administration’s recent moves on private prison reform have been encouraging to advocates, but all agree he didn’t go far enough on ICE Detention Centers.

Echoing the advocates’ concerns, some detention centers were converted from essentially the same kind of facility Biden just took action on and still have the same owners. Changing the flag at those facilities to one of immigration control ended up as almost a perfect workaround. Now that they’ve had a few weeks to digest, we reached out to some California prison reform nonprofits to get their take on Biden’s plan.

The Advocates

Courtney Hanson, a spokesperson for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, broke down the ups and downs of the situation for advocates.

“The CCWP supports the dismantling of the private prison industry, and the punitive carceral system overall,” Hanson told L.A. Weekly. “We welcome President Biden’s decision to divest from some federal contracts with for-profit ‘criminal detention’ facilities. We have seen firsthand how companies like GEO Group, the 2nd largest for-profit prison company in the U.S., target marginalized communities through projects like the McFarland ‘gender responsive’ women’s prison – a dangerous trend of for-profit prison corporations rebranding themselves as service providers.”

Hanson went on to speak about the concerns advocates still have regarding immigration centers.

“Unfortunately, President Biden’s executive order is painfully silent on the issue of ICE detention, despite being announced as part of a racial justice package. If President Biden wants to align with racial justice efforts, he must halt deportations and extend his order to ICE detention centers,” Hanson said before speaking to the efforts currently underway to push reforming the immigration center system.

“CCWP supports weekly #100DaysForFreedom actions to pressure President Biden to protect immigrants targeted by a racist criminal legal system, and demand California Governor Newsom and the incoming Attorney General build on President Biden’s commitments – by halting state transfers to ICE and releasing community members from detention,” Hanson said. “ICE facilities were already a public health crisis, and throughout COVID-19 they have been sites of reprehensible negligence, resulting in preventable deaths, immense suffering and sickness, and devastating family separation.”

Not Enough

The Prison Advocacy Network provided a statement by phone echoing CCWP’s sentiments on all fronts. PAN went further in explaining other aspects of what they believe the Biden plan is lacking.

“Our first observation is that this action really doesn’t do enough to meet the policy goals that it identifies, or even really the logistical goals that it identifies,” PAN told L.A. Weekly. “It doesn’t actually remove profit-seeking incentives. The language that they use – or that Biden uses – is that we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarceration. Simply ending contracts with private prison facilities doesn’t actually remove the profit-seeking incentives from the system – by which I mean the massive global corporations.”

PAN noted while you might first think of the “bodies in the beds” part of the profit motive, don’t forget about the companies that manage the flow of cash into the facilities like Western Union in federal facilities and JPay here in California. There are many layers to the profits that trickle down through the vendors the prison corporations use. “This action does not end or do anything to address the relationship with private companies, corporations and vendors who are continuing to make massive profits on behalf of the incarceration complex,” PAN said.

The Immigration Detention Swap

We asked if the private prison industry here in California expects to continue to trade out prison beds for immigration detention beds. “Absolutely,” PAN replied.

“First and foremost, California has already taken these actions in a stronger way than what Biden is doing, and you would think that would mean this won’t impact California at all because there aren’t any private facilities in California,” PAN said. “However, unfortunately, the answer is it won’t impact California at all because the only private facilities that are still operating in California are immigration detention facilities.”

While California’s AB32 banned the feds from opening any new private prisons or detention centers, PAN notes the industry rushed a few contracts through before implementation.

“When AB32 passed, it went into effect on January 1. So the GEO Group went around contracting standards within the cities in the city of McFarland and the city of Adelanto, California where there are ICE facilities that were either slated to open or already open. And in the week before the law went into effect, they signed 10-year contracts with both of those towns,” PAN said before noting if the facilities continue to rebrand then nobody is accomplishing anything.

In the end, AB32 had a bigger and better impact in California than what Biden released. There is still some litigation to play out around the legality of some of the contracts that got moved to the express lane to beat implementation.

LA Weekly