Open letter to Wyoming’s Statewide Elected Officials by Chair of Wyoming Rising, Ronn Smith (printed in Powell Tribune on 8/8/2019)
To Wyoming’s Statewide Elected Officials:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced its intent to contract with a private company to build and operate an immigration detention center in Evanston. It would confine up to 500 adults suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, while they await a court hearing in Salt Lake City. Management & Training Corporation (MTC) will bid for the Evanston facility, partnering with Uinta County. MTC currently operates 3 detention centers along the southern border, and 24 correctional facilities across the country.
There are at least three reasons to question the wisdom of this proposal. First is the inherent conflict of interest whenever for-profit institutions provide social services, especially when they can circumvent public accountability. Second is the absence of legal representation and immigrant advocacy in this remote location. Third is the unavoidable trampling of basic human rights, reminiscent of the internment of Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain. These reasons contributed to the denial or outright banning of private detention centers in other parts of the country, including Utah.
For-profit prisons naturally encourage higher incarceration rates, lower staffing and compromised services. In 2016 the Justice Department announced its intent to end all contracts with these prisons, because it concluded “…the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services…” This action was nullified by the Trump Administration despite significant declines in the federal prison population and a finding by the Inspector General that contracted prisons had more safety and security incidents than public prisons. Compounding this problem, the contractors engage in time-tested tactics of lobbying and campaign contributions, diverting their investment toward friendly policies and away from prisoners.
Cutting corners and bending rules has sullied the reputations of private prison contractors. In 2014 MTC was named among numerous private firms in corruption charges filed in Mississippi. In 2015 Arizona terminated the State Prison contract with MTC after an Arizona Department of Corrections report revealed the company had “a culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard” of DOC policies. In Texas, Willacy County claimed MTC failed to properly “oversee, manage, and repair” its correctional facility and “turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the prison from its inception.” Ultimately, the federal Bureau of Prisons declared it “uninhabitable” and shut it down.
The Evanston facility would displace detainees from family and support services, while its remote location and private operation would restrict public scrutiny. A number of experts regard Evanston as too isolated for qualified lawyers or advocates to offer adequate services. Some immigrants are deported that may have legal grounds to stay. For example, sending a mother of American-born children back to Mexico would create a cruel and unusual hardship for the entire family. But demonstrating this to a court requires legal representation. According to a study of 1.2 million deportation cases, detainees are at least five times more likely to get relief from deportation if they have a lawyer.
Moral objections to the Evanston proposal arise from the belief that incarceration is a responsibility of the state, and privatized incarcerations essentially represent “commerce in souls.” Detainees are generally treated as criminals. To private detention centers they represent units of cost and revenue. This not only dehumanizes the detainees, but it offends the country and culture to which they immigrated.
We should not pretend that immigrant detention centers are anything but prisons, even though most immigrants who end up there are not criminals. A Casper immigration lawyer said there is no real distinction between an immigration detainee and an inmate. A UW law professor observed that in “procedures and protocols” they look the same. Given this equivalence, Wyoming law consigns the decision to approve or deny the Evanston facility to you. The public trust warrants your careful consideration.
Ronn Smith, Wyoming Rising