Trump administration sues California over private prison ban

 Geo Group-run immigration detention center in Bakersfield
A guard watches as detainees fold clothes at an immigration detention center run by the private corrections corporation GEO Group in Bakersfield.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
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The Trump administration sued the state of California on Friday, asserting that a new state law that bans for-profit prison contracts unconstitutionally interferes with the federal prison and immigration detention systems.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, asks a judge to ban the enforcement of the law against the federal government.

“California, of course, is free to decide that it will no longer use private detention facilities for its state prisoners and detainees,” the lawsuit said. “But it cannot dictate that choice for the federal government, especially in a manner that discriminates against the federal government and those with whom it contracts.”


Assembly Bill 32, which took effect Jan. 1, prohibits new private detention contracts in California and changes to current contracts. It phases out existing facilities entirely by 2028.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and supporters of the legislation have argued that privately run prisons and detention centers create incentives for both greater incarceration rates and the mistreatment of inmates to save costs.

Private prisons “contribute to over-incarceration, including those that incarcerate inmates, as well as those that detain immigrants and asylum seekers,” Newsom spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in a statement responding to the lawsuit. “They run contrary to our values and have no place in California.”

The lawsuit filed by the U.S. attorney’s office alleges that AB 32 violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution if applied against the federal government, contending that federal agencies have the power to decide how they’ll house prisoners and detainees without interference from state governments.

According to the complaint, about 3,200 federal inmates in California are housed in private detention facilities between those in custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons. Additionally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has contracted with private companies to house about 5,000 detainees in California, which accounts for 96% of the agency’s total detention space in the state, the lawsuit said.

AB 32, the complaint argues, would require the federal government to transport inmates and detainees out of state, something that would “cripple” U.S. Marshals Service operations in California and “critically undermine ICE’s mission to enforce the immigration laws,” according to the suit.


Last month, corrections corporation GEO Group filed a lawsuit against AB 32 in the San Diego federal court, similarly alleging that the law is unconstitutional. The Florida-based company operates seven of the 10 privately managed prison and immigrant detention facilities in California. Also last month, federal officials signed nearly $6.5 billion in contracts with private prison companies for immigration detention centers — less than two weeks before AB 32 took effect.

A coalition of immigration advocacy groups, including the Immigrant Defense Project and Immigrant Legal Resource Center, denounced the federal government’s lawsuit, arguing that the state has the right to keep inmates and detained immigrants out of private prisons.

“It is outrageous, though not surprising, that the Trump administration is colluding with the for-profit prison industry to guard the immoral profits reaped from mass incarceration,” a statement from the coalition said. “Our tax dollars should not pay for suffering and mistreatment.”