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Detainees at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility are paid to work in the facility. In this file photo, these men work in the laundry room to earn a little money.

A new bill passed by legislators earlier this month would end the use of private prisons throughout the state, and could lead to the closure of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield within a year, advocates say.

AB 32 would phase out the state’s use of private prisons by 2028, and result in the closure of private facilities that detain immigrants, according to the Freedom for Immigrants advocacy group.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to sign the bill, but is widely expected to do so based on a promise he made during his gubernatorial campaign.

Mesa Verde, which is located on Golden State Avenue and is operated by GEO Group Inc., has been under the threat of closure before.

The facility had been operating through an intergovernmental service agreement with the city of McFarland before the City Council abruptly canceled the contract in late 2018.

The city’s actions led many to believe Mesa Verde would not legally be allowed to remain open.

In 2017, the state Legislature passed a law that prevented cities and counties from entering into new contracts with federal agencies or private corporations for the purpose of detaining noncitizens.

After McFarland canceled its agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it appeared that the agency would not be allowed to enter into an agreement with another city or county to keep it open.

However, ICE penned a one-year contract directly with GEO in March that will keep the Mesa Verde open through March 18, 2020.

But AB 32 could stand in the way of a contract extension.

“We know ICE and GEO have colluded to undermine our state laws in the past to expand their inhumane detention facilities in Mesa Verde and Adelanto,” Freedom for Immigrants Policy Monitor Cynthia Galaz said in an email. “Any collusion between ICE and the private prison industry must be investigated and exposed. We will not stand by and allow GEO to interfere in our state's local politics in order to profit off of locking up our community members.”

Citing a policy of not commenting on pending legislation, ICE Field Office Director David Jennings did not discuss how AB 32 could impact Mesa Verde, but he said the agency would continue to detain immigrants that are required to be taken into custody under national policy.

“Whether they’re detained here or elsewhere there’s a group of people that will be detained regardless,” he said.

Both assemblymen Vince Fong and Rudy Salas voted against AB 32, as did Sen. Shannon Grove.

The bill could have significant impacts on the city of McFarland, which hosts two private prisons operated by GEO.

“Any time a community loses a significant employer, there’s going to be a ripple,” said interim City Manager David Tooley.

He added that GEO was the city’s largest water customer, and closing the private prisons could cut into the city’s revenue.

The state had already announced that it planned to close a third McFarland private prison operated by GEO. In July, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it planned to close the 700-bed Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility by the end of November.

GEO has stood by its business practices. The company said in an email AB 32 worked against the state’s anti-recidivism goals.

“GEO is an innovator in the field of rehabilitative services,” a company spokesperson said. “Individuals in our facilities are part of our continuum of care that intensely focuses on rehabilitation programs and post-release support services, helping inmates earn their re-entry into society as productive and employable citizens.”

The total cost of the bill is unknown, but a state analysis said the price tag could climb as high as $133 million.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, authored the bill. He said it would help prioritize rehabilitation programs and reduce recidivism rates.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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