The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the White House to block an effort by a private prison company from keeping a detention center in San Diego open through an agreement with the city of McFarland.
In a letter Tuesday to the White House Domestic Policy Council, three California-based chapters of the ACLU requested the Biden Administration take action to ensure the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego shuts down after its contract with the U.S. Marshals Service expires at the end of the month.
The operator of the facility, Boca Raton, Fla.-based The GEO Group Inc., announced Tuesday it had signed a six-month contract extension with the U.S. Marshals, and was pursuing “various alternative contracting structures” to allow the 770-bed facility to remain open past the six-month extension.
One of those alternative structures is an intergovernmental agreement with McFarland. In mid-August, the McFarland City Council unanimously voted to pursue such an agreement with GEO.
As of Tuesday no update on the effort was available.
The agreement would allow McFarland to enter into a contract with the U.S. Marshals and then subcontract GEO to operate the detention facility. In exchange for its role as the middle man, McFarland would earn a $500,000 “service fee” — an enticing offer for the cash-strapped city.
However, the ACLU argues any such agreement would render moot an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in January that bars the Department of Justice from renewing contracts with private prisons.
“If GEO’s cynical ploy to continue operating the Western Region Detention Facility prevails, it would render President Biden’s executive order meaningless,” Jordan Wells, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said in a news release announcing the letter. “The executive order is meant ‘to eliminate the use of privately operated facilities,’ not to continue their use under restyled contracts. The president must not forsake his commitment to remove profit motive as an obstacle to reducing incarceration in the United States.”
A representative for the U.S. Marshals said in an email the agency could not comment by deadline. GEO did not respond to a request for comment.
The order was meant to phase out the federal use of private prisons, but companies have already begun attempting to bypass it.
Earlier this year, a private prison company in Ohio reached an agreement with a local sheriff’s office to keep a facility open. The same company, CoreCivic, is attempting a similar legal maneuver in Kansas.
In its letter to the White House, the ACLU said GEO denied medical care to people held at the Western Region Detention Facility, which in one instance resulted in a 53-year-old woman suffering multiple seizures.
The letter cites a 2019 report by the California State Auditor's Office that found serious health and safety problems in private detention facilities overseen by three California cities, including McFarland.
Until 2019, the city of McFarland contracted with GEO to operate a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Bakersfield called the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center. According to the auditor’s report, Mesa Verde fell short of multiple federal standards under lax oversight by McFarland.
Although GEO pushed back against the characterization of its service at the time, concerns remained about the well-being of detainees under their watch.
"GEO has a longstanding history of medical neglect, abuse and human rights violations in its facilities,” Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, regional policy director at Alliance San Diego, said in the release. “The Biden administration must stand with our communities and follow through on its commitment to end for-profit private prisons by terminating its contract with GEO for the Western Region Detention Facility.”
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.