Firm sues California over law banning private prisons and immigration detention centers
The corrections corporation GEO Group filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a California bill that will ban for-profit prison contracts when it takes effect Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, challenges Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. It alleges that the purpose of Assembly Bill 32 is to “undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration law” and asks the court to forbid the state from enforcing the statute.
According to the lawsuit, AB 32 will affect 10 privately managed prison and immigrant detention facilities in California with nearly 11,000 total beds — the vast majority of federal detention capacity in the state. GEO Group, which is based in Florida, manages seven of those facilities.
AB 32 prohibits new private detention contracts and changes to current contracts. It phases out existing facilities entirely by 2028.
The lawsuit calls AB 32 a “transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within California’s borders” and “a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law.” A GEO spokesperson said in a statement that it’s unconstitutional for a state to regulate the actions of the federal government or its contractors.
“To be clear, we play no role in passing immigration laws and we have never taken a position on immigration policies, whether it be the length of stay at immigration processing centers or the outcome of immigration proceedings,” the spokesperson said. “As a service provider to the government, our only mission is to deliver top-rated services to those entrusted to our care as they go through their immigration proceedings.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Newsom said that his office will review the complaint.
“As our office has previously stated, for-profit prisons, including ICE-contracted facilities, run contrary to our values and have no place in California,” said spokeswoman Vicky Waters. “Gov. Newsom signed AB 32 earlier this year to phase them out.”
The lawsuit comes 10 days after federal officials signed contracts totaling nearly $6.5 billion with GEO and the two other companies that run California’s four private immigrant detention centers. The contracts have terms of 15 years, inclusive of two five-year extensions, ending in 2034.
At the time, an ICE spokeswoman said those contracts were not affected by the limitations imposed by AB 32.
Under the new contracts, detention space in California is set to double to nearly 7,200 beds. About 52,000 immigrants are detained by ICE nationwide.
GEO also manages two federal prisons. The company signed a contract this month with the U.S. Marshals Service to run the 512-bed El Centro Service Processing Center until 2028. A previous contract with the Marshals Service for the 725-bed Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego ends in 2027.
If AB 32 forces GEO to close its facilities in California, the company said, it would lose an average of $250 million a year in revenue over the next 15 years, plus the $300 million invested in acquiring and setting up those buildings.
Pro-immigration activists have long criticized the poor conditions, including substandard medical care and documented safety violations, inside facilities run by GEO and other private prison companies. On Tuesday, they called the lawsuit a bullying tactic.
Lawyers for GEO allege that California started taking steps to interfere with federal immigration policy shortly after President Trump was elected in 2016. Senate Bill 29 and Assembly Bill 103, both signed into law in 2017, prohibit local governments and law enforcement agencies from establishing new contracts with the federal government or private corporations for immigrant detention.
By this year, four counties that had held immigrants in local jails pulled out of their contracts with ICE. The lawsuit notes that if no privately operated detention facilities were permitted in California, there would effectively be one facility in the state that ICE could use to hold detainees: Yuba County Jail, which has 220 beds.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who wrote the bill, said Tuesday that he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit, calling it a desperate attempt by a dying industry to demonstrate its viability to shareholders.
Bonta shot down GEO’s assertion that AB 32 is an attempt to end federal immigrant detention in California. He pointed to the fact that ICE owns and operates some facilities in other parts of the country and said the agency is welcome to do the same in California.
“ICE has made the choice to contract with private corporations and not build their own facilities,” he said. “They can’t subject us to corporations that cut corners and abuse and neglect people.”
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