Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed into law legislation that phases out the use of for-profit jails in the state by 2024, including one facility federally contracted to detain immigrants and that was last year the target of a lawsuit for its treatment of detained people amid the pandemic. “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 according to the Associated Press.
Following Inslee’s signature last week, the state now joins California and Illinois in passing a ban that includes private immigration jails, in a victory for advocates. “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,” Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) Legal Director Matt Adams told the AP.
The bill would prevent a contract renewal between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO Group-operated Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which has capacity to detain more than 1,500 people. Both GEO Group and the Tacoma facility have long been criticized by detained immigrants and their advocates, with NWIRP and other organizations suing the facility last year for the immediate release of detainees at serious risk of health complications or death in the event of COVID-19 infection.
“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,” the AP reported. The private prison profiteer has already filed a lawsuit against another state for enacting similar legislation, suing California over its ban last year. While a judge largely upheld the law in a major loss for GEO Group, it’s now being appealed. “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,” the AP reported.
The AP report said that a spokesperson for a trade association of private prison profiteers warned that closing the Tacoma facility “could result in migrants being transferred to local jails or ‘moved far from family and friends,’” which is the exact same argument that ICE has made in opposing California’s legislation. They know they’re watching out for each other’s dollar, and survival.
“If this law takes effect, ICE would simply have to transfer individuals a greater distance from their arrest location to other facilities outside the state,” ICE warned in 2019. “Thus, the impact would be felt by residents of California who would be forced to travel greater distances to visit friends and family in custody, and not by ICE.” Or, ICE could just not detain people because it has every power to just let people fight their cases from their own homes and communities. Like activist Maru Mora Villalpando of advocate La Resistencia told KNKX, “[t]here's no need for people to be detained.”
In a series of tweets, La Resistencia said that while the new law means that Tacoma’s contract ends in 2025, it will be pushing Inslee to close the facility as soon as possible. “For five plus years we have fought to close the Northwest Detention Center and we will not stop until the doors are opened and
everyone is free,” the group’s website read. The organization is encouraging messages to Inslee here.
There’s more President Biden can be doing right now too, and that can be done with the stroke of a pen. Advocates have called on the president to include ICE facilities in his executive action ordering the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons. ICE jails the vast majority of its detainees—80% of detained immigrants, according to United We Dream—in for-profit facilities like Tacoma. ICE wastes massive amounts of cash even when beds go empty, adding to the case for ending for-profit contracts altogether.