Private Prison Group Sues California over New Law

On Monday, a Florida corporation, GEO Group, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging AB 32, a new law that would take effect today banning new private prison contracts.

The lawsuit, represented by multiple firms on behalf of GEO Group, Inc., against Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra alleges that the “unlawful effect of AB-32 is to undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration law by (ICE)…

“AB32 will impact at least ten of the privately managed facilities totaling 10,925 beds, which represent the overwhelming majority of detention capacity held by the federal government in the state of California,” the lawsuit said.

In a statement, the governor’s office said on Monday, “As our office has previously stated, for-profit prisons, including ICE-contracted facilities, run contrary to our values and have no place in California…  Gov. Newsom signed AB32 earlier this year to phase them out.”

Under AB 32, authored by Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta, the state will begin phasing out the use of private prisons – barring the state from keeping overflow inmates in privately-run facilities beginning in 2029.

Currently, according to an October LA Times article, the state houses “about 1,600 inmates in three prisons in Kern and San Bernardino counties, run by the Florida-based GEO Group. Under the new law, California cannot renew those contracts, which expire in 2023, or enter into new ones after this year unless it needs them to keep the prison population under a court-ordered cap.”

“We’re saying, ‘No more,’” Assemblymember Bonta said at a press conference in October. “No more inhumane treatment of individuals in for-profit, private facilities. No more profiteering on the backs of Californians.”

On Tuesday, Assemblymember Bonta tweeted, “Exactly what you’d expect (from) a collapsing industry in its final death throes—a desperate attempt 2 buy another year of survival 2 pad its corporate profits, despite a nation’s rejection 4 profiteering on the backs of humans/treating people as commodities.”

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.”

This is new ground, as AB 32 made California became the first in the nation to ban the operation of privately-run immigrant detention centers.

It is the federal immigrant detention centers portion of the bill that this suit attacks, however.

There have been complaints in general about private prisons, but the use of private immigrant detention centers have ignited huge controversy in recent months – as they hold hundreds of thousands of immigrants who crossed illegally into the United States or are awaiting deportation.  These facilities have been criticized for poor and inhumane conditions.

But it is here that the law in California is most vulnerable.  While some figured that the US would simply move such immigrants to other states, but GEO Group, Inc., through their attorneys, is arguing that this law is a violation of the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution.

The suit alleges, “Like the State of Maryland two hundred 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.”

They write that “it is the duty of the federal courts to guard our constitutional order against this attack.”

They add, “There is no question that the Federal Government has the power to detain individuals in anticipation of, or as a consequence of, federal criminal or immigration proceedings. 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 problem is that under AB 32 “it will be illegal as of January 1, 2020, for the Federal Government to enter into or renew such contracts for facilities in the State of California.”

They assert: “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.”

According to the AG’s office, they have not received this suit and thus have not responded.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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