In a major victory for immigrant rights advocates, and a major blow for private companies that make massive profits off immigration detention, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed a bill banning private, for-profit prisons, including those that jail thousands of immigrants. “We are sending a powerful message that we vehemently oppose the practice of profiteering off the backs of Californians in custody,” said Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who authored the bill. “We are committed to humane treatment for all.”
“Starting on Jan. 2020,” NBC News reported, “the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation won't be able to enter into or renew a contract with a private, for-profit prison to incarcerate people.” The new legislation would affect four immigration detention centers, including the GEO Group’s Adelanto, which Hamid Yazdan Panah of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice described as “the second-deadliest facility in the entire nation.”
Late last year, investigators from the Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General uncovered “serious violations” during an unannounced visit to the prison, including nooses in detainee cells, falsified medical exams, and prison officials placing a disabled man who asked for administrative segregation into disciplinary segregation. “Based on our file review,” the report stated, “in those 9 days, the detainee never left his wheelchair to sleep in a bed or brush his teeth.” In early 2017, the prison experienced three immigrant deaths in the span of three months.
Just days ago, 37-year-old Nebane Abienwi died after being jailed at CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa, another private prison that will be affected by the new law. Likely an asylum-seeker, Abienwi was rushed to a hospital after about two weeks in custody, reportedly dying of a brain hemorrhage. “We believe his death would not have occurred had he not been detained,” said Genevieve Jones-Wright of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. “What was the incident that gave way to him having a brain hemorrhage?”
ICE, of course, blasted California’s move as wrong, and threatened that the agency “will likely have to transfer individuals a greater distance from their arrest location to where they’d be detained." Typical ICE thuggery, because the agency doesn’t have to keep people such as asylum-seekers locked up in the first place. “Immigration detention, as a whole, is needless,” Panah said. “People do not need to be detained in the context of immigration and civil proceedings.”
What immigrant rights advocates say is that California’s move should serve as a blueprint for more states to follow—“AB 32 is truly a model for the rest of the nation,” said Christina Fialho of Freedom for Immigrants—and the trend is certainly in their favor, because it’s been public pressure from advocates that’s resulted in major banks severing their ties with these private prison profiteers. This business, Panah said, “is abhorrent. It’s morally reprehensible. It’s something that in 10 to 20 years from now we’ll look back on with complete disgust. And I think this bill is the first step in ending that."