In a major loss for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and private prison profiteer GEO Group, a federal judge has largely upheld California law banning private prisons, including those that jail immigrants for the federal government. Concerned about profits over people, GEO Group sued following the legislation’s signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. On Thursday, GEO Group lost.
“Today’s ruling is a major rebuke to both ICE and the GEO Group, and a set-back for their illicit scheme to subvert popular legislation,” the Dignity not Detention coalition said in a statement. “Meanwhile, medical neglect and abuse are worsening in ICE detention, from the spraying of toxic chemicals to rampaging COVID outbreaks. Despite this, Black and brown immigrants are continuing to organize for freedom, and our state leaders must hear their voices.”
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GEO Group sued the state of California just weeks after the legislation’s passage last year, calling the bill “a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law.” Or maybe it’s really just worried about its pocketbook: along with CoreCivic, “the two companies account for 85 percent of the U.S. private prison market, and a majority of their revenue comes from housing immigrants,” VICE reported in 2017.
The federal government’s lawsuit against California followed just a couple of weeks later. But in a downright sneaky move, ICE also rushed to extend new private prison contracts mere days before the legislation was set to go into effect, in a clear attempt to flout the law. That move also appears to be halted by Thursday’s court ruling.
“In another setback for ICE and the GEO Group, the judge also refused to affirmatively uphold a number of 15-year, multi-billion contracts which prison corporations entered into with ICE in order to expand immigration detention in the state,” Pangea Legal said. “Signed days before AB 32 went into effect, the contracts drew condemnation from community groups and Members of Congress.”
The ruling was not a complete win because advocates said the ruling would not apply to private U.S. Marshal facilities. The judge, Courthouse News Services reported, “did conclude the state law is an obstacle as applied to the U.S. Marshal Services contracts with private detention centers and as applied to GEO’s contracts with the marshals, but not an obstacle to the Bureau of Prisons’ halfway houses and ICE’s contracts with private prison centers.”
“At the same time, even with the ruling largely upholding AB 32, we are disappointed by the exclusion of US Marshal facilities,” Dignity not Detention coalition continued. “As we face the twin crises of COVID and systemic racism, we affirm: whether cages are run by a corporation or the government, incarceration is wrong, abusive, and must end.”
Rampant abuses while in ICE detention have been festering for years, and this abuse has only increased amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Palm Springs Desert Sun recently reported that nearly 20% of immigrants detained at GEO Group’s Adelanto, California, facility have tested positive for the virus, along with more than 30 staff members. The pandemic is clearly affecting both detainees and staff, yet ICE has steadily refused to release greater numbers of people—and is intentionally endangering lives.
A number of detained immigrants have in fact died after contracting COVID-19 in federal immigration custody. CNN reported that of the 21 immigrants who died on ICE’s watch during the 2020 fiscal year—its deadliest year since 2005—more than one-third of them had tested positive for COVID-19.
Advocacy group Immigrant Defense Advocates (IDA) noted the potential influence the legislation stands to have all across the nation as advocates fight for the very lives of detained immigrants. “Taking away private bed space from ICE is a major blow to their detention apparatus, that is why this ruling is significant,” the organization tweeted. “This is a huge win not only for California but for the viability of this bill in other states.”