Capitol Alert

New California law bans private prisons and immigrant detention centers

California must phase out private, for-profit prisons and immigrant detention centers by 2028 under a new law Gov. Gavin Newsom announced signing Friday.

The measure, Assembly Bill 32, represents a step toward the governor’s campaign promise to end the state’s use of private prisons.

It will prohibit state officials from signing new agreements with private prisons or renewing existing contracts starting next year, unless needed to comply with court-ordered population caps.

It will also ban all private detention centers from operating in California by the time their current contracts run out, including private immigrant detention facilities that contract with federal immigration authorities. It wouldn’t prohibit the federal government from building its own detention centers in California.

“Closing immigrant prisons is an essential step towards dismantling a system that profits off of abuse and lines the pockets of private prison executives and industry shareholders,” Christina Fialho, executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, said in a statement. “AB 32 is truly a model for the rest of the nation.”

The night before Newsom signed the bill, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency would relocate migrants housed in California facilities if the state bans private detention facilities.

“If this bill, or any similar bill, were to take effect, ICE would simply transfer individuals elsewhere at a greater distance from their arrest location to where they’d be detained,” spokeswoman Lori K. Haley said in a statement. “The impact of such a state law would be felt almost exclusively by residents of California who would be forced to travel greater distances to visit friends and family in custody, not by a federal law enforcement agency.”

Two weeks before Newsom signed AB 32, the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it would no longer house inmates at the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility, a private prison in McFarland. Earlier this year, the state also cut ties with a prison in Arizona, the last private, out-of-state prison the state contracted with.

But the state’s corrections department still has contracts at three in-state private prisons that house about 1,600 people, according to the department.

Liberal activists in California have been pressuring the government to break ties from private prisons for years. Last year, the California State Teachers’ Retirement Board, which oversees the state’s teachers pension fund, divested from two private prison companies under pressure from teachers and left-leaning groups.

Unlike public prisons, private prisons have a financial motive to keep people incarcerated and to cut costs, said bill author Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda. They aren’t incentivized to set up programs aimed at helping people reenter society after they’re released and stay out of jail, he said.

“These are for-profit private entities, their fiduciary duty is to Wall Street and their shareholders,” Bonta said. “They’re literally profiteering on the backs of Californians.”

GEO Group, which operates private prisons and detention centers in California, argues the new law will be overturned in court because it attempts to prevent federal government from using certain facilities. The company argues it “intensely focuses on rehabilitation programs and post-release support services, helping inmates earn their re-entry into society as productive and employable citizens,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo E. Paez said in a statement.

California increased its use of private prisons roughly a decade ago after courts determined the state’s prisons were so overcrowded they violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

The California State Sheriffs Association argues banning private prisons takes away an important option the state has to ensure its prisons aren’t overcrowded.

“The concern of the sheriffs is that if you take tools off the table, you start taking things that can help address population management,” said Cory Salzillo, a lobbyist for the sheriffs. “You increase the likelihood that people could be released from prison because of, say, a population cap.”

The law would let California house inmates in a private prison if that’s the only way to comply with a court-ordered population cap, Bonta said. But he argued that shouldn’t be an option the state uses.

“The data has shown and the incentives are structured so Californians in these facilities are hurt, abused, neglected,” he said. “It was never the right idea for California to use private facilities.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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