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California to ban ICE detention centers, private prisons

"People are not commodities!" said Assemblyman Rob Bonta.

California to ban ICE detention centers, private prisons
Image source: Pixabay
  • California lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that would phase out private prisons, and four ICE detention centers in the state, by 2028.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom still needs to sign the bill, which he is expected to do.
  • Private prisons house a minority of the national prisoner population, but their populations have grown by 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

California is set to pass a bill that would phase out the state's private prisons, and also four major detention centers run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), over the next decade.

State lawmakers passed bill AB-32 on Wednesday, but it still must be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. He's expected to do so based on his inaugural speech from January, in which he said California should, "end the outrage of private prisons once and for all."

It's shaping up to be a significant victory for criminal justice reform, and a defeat for the private prison industry, which as recently as 2016 had overseen the imprisonment of some 7,000 Californians, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

AB-32 was originally drafted to address contracts between the state's prison authority and private, for-profit prisons, according to a report from The Guardian. However, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who authored the bill, recently updated AB-32 to also apply to the four major ICE detention centers operating in the state. Two of these detention centers are operated by Geo Group, a company that also runs four private prisons in California.

Bonta said companies such as Geo Group "only care about the almighty dollar."

"They don't care what happens to people when they return to their communities," Bonta said, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. "We do."

The contracts for these four private prisons are set to expire in 2023 and cannot be renewed under AB-32. But the bill would allow some for-profit prisons to continue operating, only to help California comply with court-ordered population caps. In 2028, private, for-profit prisons would be completely outlawed under AB-32.

Private prisons: Profit vs. rehabilitation

In 1984, Tennessee established the nation's first private prison. Over the following years, the so-called "war on drugs" caused prisons to overflow, and more states to begin turning to corporations to house inmates in private, for-profit prisons. And though private prisons still only house a minority of the national prisoner population — about 12 percent — their populations have grown by 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

In 2016, the Justice Department announced plans to stop using private prisons, citing, in part, a report from the Office of the Inspector General indicating that private prisons were generally more violent — for guards and inmates — than government-run institutions. But former Attorney General Jeff Sessions later reversed that decision.

The main criticism against private prisons lies in an inherent conflict of interest: How can private prisons be expected to care about effective rehabilitation when more prisoners equals more profit for the prison companies? You could ask the same question about maintaining humane conditions, or the constitutionality of prison labor within private prisons. This counterproductive incentive structure can be seen in how prison companies lobby for "pro-incarceration" policies at the state and federal level, as described in a 2011 report from the Justice Policy Institute:

"Private prison companies have had either influence over, or helped to draft, model legislation such as three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws, which have driven up incarceration rates."

The Trump administration has offered no plans to end the use of private prisons. In fact, private prison companies have recently seen record profits, thanks mainly to a surge in the number of immigrants housed in detention centers operated by private prison companies.

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