California Ban on Private Prisons Challenged as Unconstitutional

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A new California law banning private prisons in the state interferes with federal supremacy by blocking the U.S. government from detaining undocumented immigrants in privately run facilities within the state’s borders, a private prison firm claims in a lawsuit filed Monday.

The GEO Group, a private detention company based in Boca Raton, Florida, says Assembly Bill 32 signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 11 will force it to shut down at least one of its seven private detention centers containing 5,727 beds.

“This transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within California’s borders is a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law, and it cannot stand,” the company states in its lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of California.

The Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, Calif., a desert community northeast of Los Angeles, on April 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Critics have denounced private prisons as lacking oversight and being driven by the goal of keeping inmates detained rather than rehabilitating prisoners. A 2016 report by the U.S. Justice Department found the Federal Bureau of Prisons failed to ensure private prisons were complying with federal law by providing medical care to inmates. It also found higher rates of inmate-on-inmate assaults and illicit weapons in private detention centers.

When authorizing the ban in October, Newsom said he was keeping a promise to end the use of private prisons in California because they “contribute to over-incarceration” and “do not reflect our values.”

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, bars the renewal of contracts with private prison operators and prohibits the state from housing inmates at for-profit facilities starting in 2028. In addition, the ban covers private immigration detention centers that contract with the federal government – but does not bar the federal government from building or operating its own facilities.

Opponents of the new law, including the California Sheriff’s Association, argued it would deprive correctional officials of a necessary tool to ensure dangerous inmates are not released from state prison and that county jails have adequate capacity to detain inmates.

The GEO Group compared banning the U.S. government from contracting with private detention centers in California to Maryland’s attempt to tax a federal bank in 1816, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in the 1819 decision McCulloch v. Maryland.

“Like the state of Maryland 200 years ago, the state of California seeks to subvert these principles, asserting the authority to regulate and undermine the United States government in the exercise of sovereign powers undoubtedly within the supreme sphere of federal action,” the 31-page lawsuit states.

GEO Group argues there is “no question” the government possesses the power to detain individuals suspected or convicted of federal crimes and immigration offenses.

“Nor is there any question that the federal government has the authority to contract with private entities with expertise in the operation of detention facilities to carry out its detention responsibilities,” the complaint states.

The company seeks a court order declaring Assembly Bill 32 in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also seeks a permanent injunction barring the state from enforcing the new law.

Michael McClellan of Newmeyer & Dillion in Newport Beach, California, represents GEO Group.

The company operates 130 detention facilities in the United States containing 96,000 beds, including idle beds and projects under development, according to the GEO Group website.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently operates four detention centers in California, all of which are run by for-profit companies. They include the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto with 1,940 beds; Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico with 704 beds; Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield with 400 beds; and Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego with 1,944 beds.

ICE has also entered into contracts to convert three facilities into detention center annexes to be run by GEO or one of its subsidiaries. Those include the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility (MCCF) in McFarland with 700 beds; Golden State MCCF, also in McFarland, with 700 beds; and Desert View MCCF in Adelanto with 750 beds.

GEO also has existing contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service to operate two detention centers for federal inmates. Those facilities include the Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego with 725 beds and the El Centro Service Processing Center in El Centro with 512 beds.

The company argues that if those two prisons are shuttered, the U.S. Marshals would have only one non-private facility to detain inmates in the San Diego area, with the next closest non-private prison 90 miles away in Santa Ana.

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s Office said it had not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.

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