OPINION: Now is the Time To End Private Prisons in Washington State

by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña

The Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma incarcerates immigrants as their immigration cases—which can take years—play out in court. Don’t let the name “detention center” fool you; this 1,575-bed facility is a prison–the only private for-profit prison in Washington state, owned by the GEO Group, one of the largest operators of prisons.

The public rightfully expects humane treatment and transparency in our corrections system — not an out-sourcing of governmental responsibilities to for-profit corporations whose profits rely on keeping people behind bars. Private prisons experience more incidents of violence than public prisons, and have been shown to lead to increases in recidivism.

In a government-operated prison, the priorities are public safety and rehabilitation; in private prisons, the priority is a profitable bottom line — and that means incarcerating as many people as possible. Worldwide, the GEO Group owns and operates 129 facilities with an astounding 95,000 beds, about 80% of which are in the United States at facilities that are the source of frequent human rights complaints .

In 2018, the death of an asylum seeker detained at the NWDC led Congress and Gov. Jay Inslee to demand a comprehensive investigation into conditions there. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently sued the GEO Group for paying people who are detained just $1 per day to do work that keeps the facility operational. Complaints about mistreatment, lack of adequate medical care and health problems due to the toxic environment surrounding the facility are rampant, and hunger strikes to denounce immigration detention and inhumane conditions are on the rise.

This winter, I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley border area that is home to five immigration detention centers, at least one owned by the GEO Group. Rep. Mia Gregerson and I met with community leaders from ARISE Adelante, a women-led community-based non-profit organization in South Texas, and other nongovernmental organizations on both sides of the border responding to the humanitarian crisis worsened by Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Liz Castillo from Detention Watch Network presented shocking statistics about immigrants incarcerated in the U.S. In fiscal year (FY) 1994, an average of 6,785 individuals were detained per day; these numbers rose to 38,106 in FY 2017, 42,188 in FY 2018, and 49,403 in FY 2019. At least 65% of immigrants are held in facilities operated by for-profit companies, 25% are in county jails, and only 10% in federally owned facilities, even when unauthorized entries were at a record low.

Back in Washington, with the help of La Resistencia, Latino Civic Alliance, and a core group of legislators, Rep. Lilian Ortiz-Self and I introduced legislation to ban private prisons in the 2020 legislative session. Senate Bill 6442 and House Bill 2576 sought to phase out the use of private prisons in Washington by prohibiting new contracts and the extension of existing contracts

Two weeks into the 2020 session, however, the Trump administration challenged the legality of a similar bill passed in California in 2019, claiming states cannot interfere with how federal agencies choose to house prisoners and detainees. After much debate, my fellow legislators and I decided we would need more research to ensure legislation to close the NWDC and end private prisons in WA State would withstand a challenge from the federal government.  We amended the bills appropriately before they were passed by the Legislature.

HB 2576 directs a study into health and safety issues in other institutions in the state, such as private jails. In the meantime, we are monitoring the California court case and plan to revisit the private prison ban next year, armed with new information.

SB 6442, meanwhile, prohibits the use of private, out-of-state facilities for criminal incarceration. In the past, Washington has sent people to private, out-of-state prisons when our own prisons have reached capacity, but that can no longer be the practice. This bill would have applied to in-state prisons but was amended in light of the California challenge.

Another bill this year, HB 2640, clarifies that facilities like the NWDC are not “essential public facilities,” meaning they are subject to local land-use regulations when and if they attempt to expand, resolving a legal battle the City of Tacoma fought for years.

We made progress this session in educating our colleagues and building a powerful coalition of over 150 organizations from across the state of Washington.  New and stronger relationships were made between immigrant rights organizations, criminal justice reform activists, and tribal leaders to build a broader movement to end incarceration, period.  This interim we will continue to work with stakeholders so we can come back in 2021 with legislation to further reform the use of for-profit prisons.

Rebecca Saldaña is the state senator for Washington’s 37th Legislative District 

Featured image: March 30 protest at the Northwest Detention Center by Alex Garland

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