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Federal judge issues temporary restraining order against GEO and city of McFarland over immigrant detention centers

McFarland Planning Commission meeting 3 (copy)

In this file photo, immigrant-rights activists make their point known during a McFarland Planning Commission meeting.

A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against the city of McFarland and the private prison company GEO Group Inc., blocking the use of two state prisons as immigrant detention facilities.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley, of the Eastern District of California, granted the request of Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Freedom for Immigrants, two advocacy organizations that sued the city of McFarland and GEO Group over their plan to convert the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility and the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility into annexes of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.

In the lawsuit, the two organizations say the city of McFarland improperly approved permit changes that would allow the conversion of the detention facilities, and that transferring detainees into the facilities would put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.

The McFarland Planning Commission, which is also included in the lawsuit, first rejected GEO’s proposal to modify the facility’s permits in February. However, the decision was overturned on appeal by the City Council in late April.

The City Council’s vote allowed GEO Group to begin the transfer of detainees into the two former state prisons as early as Wednesday, although it's unclear if the company planned to do so.

A GEO spokesman said the city correctly issued the permits and the company was confident the city's actions would be upheld by the court.

Interim McFarland City Manager Janet Davis didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The two 700-bed facilities will allow GEO Group to dramatically expand the capacity of Mesa Verde, which houses a maximum of 400 individuals.

Lawyers for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Freedom For Immigrants argue in the lawsuit both the McFarland City Council and Planning Commission violated aspects of state law put into place in 2018 with the Dignity Not Detention Act.

The lawyers said the city failed to wait 180 days before executing GEO Group’s proposal in violation of the law, and limited public access to meetings in which the proposal was discussed. In addition, the lawyers cited the ongoing spread of COVID-19 within Kern County and the state as a reason for the judge to block the transfer of detainees.

McFarland and GEO Group must respond to the court within seven days of the ruling.

This story has been edited to add a comment from GEO.

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