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Feds Sue California Over Ban on Private Prisons

The federal government Friday sued California over its ban on private prisons, claiming the new law is unconstitutional, discriminates against the federal government and obstructs its ability to carry out operations.

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The federal government Friday sued California over its ban on private prisons, claiming the new law is unconstitutional, discriminates against the federal government and obstructs its ability to carry out operations.

AB 32, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year and effective Jan. 1, prohibits the operation of private detention facilities within the state.

But the new law wasn’t just written to address California’s previous reliance on private prisons to alleviate overcrowding in state-run facilities; the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, said in a statement after Newsom signed the bill that it was purposely aimed at federally contracted private prisons along the U.S.-Mexico border housing immigrant detainees.

“We’ve all seen the horrific humanitarian crisis playing out along the border. No human being deserves to be held in the well-documented cruel conditions in these for-profit, private facilities. For that reason, AB 32 was expanded to cover civil detention facilities as well as prisons,” Bonta said in a statement.

Arguing it was targeted by the new law, the Trump administration asked a judge Friday to bar California from enforcing AB 32 against the federal government and the private prisons it contracts with.

“California, of course, is free to decide that it will no longer use private detention facilities for its state prisoners and detainees. 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,” the government argues in its 17-page lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California.

The federal government also complains five exemptions written into AB 32 apply only to state contracts, and not to those held by the federal government. Among the exemptions are juvenile facilities and residential care facilities.

Private prison company The GEO Group sued the state over the new law in December, claiming it would be forced to shut down at least one of its facilities containing 5,727 beds.

In Friday’s lawsuit, the Department of Justice argued AB 32 is pre-empted by federal law and because it discriminates against the federal government and prevents it from carrying out its operations, in violation of the Supremacy Clause enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Immigrant detentions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which can house 5,000 immigrant detainees in private detention facilities in California, is most affected by the law.

“AB 32 would critically undermine ICE’s mission to enforce the immigration laws, and in particular, to effectuate arrests and removals of criminal aliens subject to mandatory custody,” the government says in its complaint.

As an example, it points to the 44,000 immigrants detained in fiscal year 2019 which “would ultimately need to be relocated to neighboring states” under AB 32.

Transporting immigrant detainees would place “an enormous strain” on ICE air and ground transportation and could “adversely impact detainees’ ability to timely collect evidence if they have family or friends in California,” according to the lawsuit.

The government says the U.S. Marshals Service houses 1,100 inmates – over 22% of its inmates in California – in private prisons, all at the Western Region Detention Facility and Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego.

The Marshals Service only uses private detention facilities when no other space is available, according to the lawsuit.

And the number of detainees is expected to grow significantly: the government says its detention population in California is projected to increase 25% by fiscal year 2023.

“AB 32 would cripple USMS operations in California, especially in the Southern District of California. USMS would need to relocate nearly 50% of its inmates in the Southern District of California and nearly 30% of its California inmates when its contracts expire. These relocations pose significant harm to the USMS’ prisoner-management mission,” the government claims, noting the relocations would “cost significant taxpayer dollars.”

A “ripple effect” would affect other districts outside of California forced to house federal inmates, potentially creating overcrowding, the government warns.

“Relocation would also cause prisoners to be isolated from their families, who are usually located in California and may lack resources to visit the prisoner,” according to the lawsuit.

Transporting detainees to and from court hearings will also be more difficult under AB 32 and could cause delays in judicial proceedings.

Coordinating transportation will require three to four weeks advance notice, according to the lawsuit.

As for the Bureau of Prisons, 2,200 California inmates are housed in private detention facilities and would have to be relocated, including over 1,300 inmates at Taft CI and 10 Residential Reentry Centers throughout the state that house 900 inmates.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.

The California Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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