Biden Administration Partners with Private Prisons to Kill Popular CA Law to End Private Detention

Pasadena, CA - Today, an en banc 11-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that GEO could block California’s AB 32 (People not Profit, Bonta) from going into effect for the duration of the lawsuit, pending further review from District Court. AB 32 is a state law signed in 2019 which banned private prisons and private immigration detention centers in the state. A federal district court judge had largely upheld the law in the fall of 2020. But a three judge panel erroneously held that key sections of the law were likely unconstitutional in 2021, and today, 8 of the 11 en banc judges panel of the Ninth Circuit once again sided with GEO and the Federal Government. 

The ruling will allow these detention centers, which have a long track record of serious abuse, to remain open. The Biden administration’s decision to pursue the Trump-era lawsuit sparked anger from advocates, who had urged Congressional leaders to sign this letter signed by 25 Members of Congress expressing “serious concern.” 

The Court’s flawed ruling comes as the number of immigrants in ICE detention has skyrocketed under the Biden administration. Prior to the ruling, private prison companies colluded with ICE to secure what they allege to be fifteen year contracts, including the addition of three new facilities, totalling 6.5 billion in profits at the expense of taxpayers. Private prisons companies have played a direct role in entrenching incarceration in California, against the will of Californians and at grave expense to Black and brown people especially. California passed AB 32 in furtherance of the health and safety of Californians. 

A federal district court judge had largely upheld AB 32 in the fall of 2020, but a three judge panel at the Ninth Circuit wrongly struck down much of the law in 2021. While the Ninth Circuit agreed to reconsider the case through an 11-judge "en banc" panel, that panel once again wrongly held that GEO was likely to succeed in their effort to enjoin key parts of AB32. The en banc panel remanded the case back to the district court to consider whether GEO group has met the other requirements to enjoin AB 32. 

In response to today’s ruling, the Dignity not Detention Coalition, which led efforts to pass AB 32, issued the following statement:  

By failing to act for the past two years, the Biden administration has betrayed express promises, violated core values, and risked the lives of immigrant community members. Just this past summer, over 50 immigrants lost their lives due to racist policies such as “Remain in Mexico”. We continue to demand an immediate end to deportations and ask that humanitarian parole be granted for asylum seekers.

Continuing to rely on detention is harming our local communities, and forcing people into inhuman conditions. 

Today’s ruling on AB 32–brought about by the administration’s decision to continue a Trump-era lawsuit–is another grim marker of the administration’s descent into Trumpian immigration policy. 

In this painful moment, we demand that the Biden administration and Congress take immediate action to repair the harm they have caused immigrants.

Immgiration detention is always abusive, and both the administration and Congress must end these contracts and cut funding for immigration detention altogether. The long record of medical neglect and systemic abuses plaguing detention centers–and the anti-Blackness and racism deeply embedded in the system–condemn immigration detention and those who allow it to continue 

Today’s ruling is a stark lesson about the threat unchecked corporate power poses to the democratic process. Yet AB 32 is but one tactic in a large quest for justice.

People who are currently in detention and their loved ones continue to organize for freedom and dignity every day, as shown by the brave men detained at Golden State Annex in McFarland,who led labor strikes to bring light to the awful conditions they faced. We must answer their call for solidarity and redouble our efforts to end all detention, whether run by a corporation or the government. 

Community members who have lived through ICE detention themselves also weighed in on the Court’s decision. Jose Topete, a community leader who was formerly detained in Adelanto detention center, commented: 

The fact is, to call it torture is an understatement. GEO Group has profited hundreds of millions of dollars and the company is worth billions globally. They are morally corrupt and take advantage of an immigration system that still heavily relies on detaining and criminalizing immigrants. 

California previously set limits on local governments contracting with ICE to run detention facilities out of city and county jails, and only one locally jail-run ICE detention center exists in the state. Those laws, passed in 2017, remain in full effect and are not part of this lawsuit. 

Background: Pushed by a grassroots movement and signed in October 2019, AB 32 went into effect on January 1, 2020. Since contracts for three of the four private ICE detention centers in the state were set to expire in March 2020, the facilities would have closed prior to the onset of COVID-19, which devastated detention centers and surrounding communities across the state due to ICE’s well-documented medical neglect. 

But days before AB 32 went into effect in December 2019, ICE inked new contracts to keep the California detention centers open and to expand detention into facilities which California had been leasing from one of the corporations, The GEO group. The contracts drew condemnation from Members of Congress, stating that these contracts potentially violated federal procurement laws in an attempt to lock in long term contracts before AB 32’s effective date. Days later, GEO filed a lawsuit against AB 32, soon joined by the Trump administration. 

In October 2020, District Court Judge Janis Sammartino, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a ruling largely upholding AB32. Yet the Biden administration chose to continue the Trump administration’s lawsuit and appeal the decision. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit sided with GEO and the administration. This rare en banc hearing–a level of appellate review between a Ninth Circuit panel and the Supreme Court–revived the efforts to shut down these facilities via AB 32 Throughout this litigation and regardless of its outcome, advocates continue to demand the facilities’ shutdown through local efforts, and through individual campaigns to release people detained there. 

ICE systematically deprives thousands of immigrants of liberty each day, with anti-Black racism, medical neglect, in-custody deaths, and abuses rampant even prior to COVID-19. Advocates have long argued that whether run by governments or corporations, detention and incarceration are abusive and unnecessary, and that community-based alternatives are effective and life saving. 

Advocates note that outside of the immigration context, nine in ten incarcerated people are held in government-run prisons or jails.