AB 3228 – A California bill and its implications

Despite celebrations that California was ‘banning private prisons’ in 2019 as headlines claimed, its for-profit prison industry is still currently alive and well in 2020, even expanding, putting detainees at higher risks of harm than ever before. 

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And it’s not like GEO is just some small business; they’re one of California’s largest private prison owners, with multiple facilities raking in billions of dollars in funding. As Heidi Altman, the director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said on the matter, “It’s really not an exaggeration to say that there is basically no meaningful accountability or oversight for the companies who are involved”. This lack of oversight for private companies has a significant impact on the entire immigrant detention process in California, with GEO Group, Core Civic, and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) owning four of the five detention centers in use. 

So why are these groups left unchecked, and what happened with the prison-ban headline? It is true that in 2019, the state of California passed AB 32, which barred for-profit companies from operating immigration detention facilities, but only after their current ICE contracts expired. To clarify, ICE is the one pouring money into these inhumane facilities, knowing the abuses occurring inside them; they’re where the government and private companies link. Days before AB 32 came into effect, ICE signed contracts with GEO, Core Civic, and MTC that totalled at a $6.5 billion dollar commitment, extending for an additional 15 years. The GEO Group plans to use their $3.7 billion dollar cut to add 2000 new beds to its facilities, taking California’s bed count from over 5000 to over 7000. 

The centers are also expanding into buildings that used to be prisons; with the abuses reported in their facilities, it is no exaggeration to say these centers are looking for 2000 more people to lock up. When asked about the new ICE contracts, Oakland assemblyman Bonta said ICE,“deliberately manipulated the process, gamed it and rigged it so that they could get these new contracts in place before Jan. 1, 2020.’” 

With COVID-19 now wreaking havoc in California, the last thing we need is an influx of people confined in small spaces, with little ability to social distance, let alone upkeep sanitation practices. And that is exactly what will, and is, happening. One woman, Shakira Najera Chilel, spoke on her experience inside an ICE detention center since the start of COVID. She left Guatemala seeking asylum due to transphobic violence and arrived in the US in 2019. For the past year, she’s been detained at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, in conditions similar to California’s facilities. She told NPR correspondents about her experience, expressing the impossibility of social distancing in detention, even if the facility adhered to set standards. Given the fact that she can barely access soap and hand sanitizer, not only is her treatment illegal, it may well be deadly. Not to mention, she’s been imprisoned for a year as an asylum-seeker who has committed no crime. 

A proposed bill, AB 3228, seeks to begin to remedy these egregious injustices. The Accountability in Detention Act, now headed to Governor Newson, aims to provide a safety net for the health of detainees within private prisons, which hold 90% of California’s detained population. It would require immigration detention facility operators to adhere to standards in the facility’s contract, and if they don’t, would allow individuals to bring civil action against them. The courts would also award the plaintiff proper attorney’s fees. 

The bill is supported by Immigrant Defense Advocates, the bill’s sponsor, as well as ACLU California, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, Services Immigrant Rights and Education Network, to name a few. It is absolutely necessary for individuals to be able to bring forth legal claims when for-profit prisons do not comply with their basic health standards. Raising public awareness of these human rights violations, and urging Gavin Newsom to sign this bill, are important first steps to remedying the abuse occurring under ICE’s watch.

However, AB 3228 is not a final solution, nor much of a solution at all. It doesn’t stop ICE from expanding facilities, which it plans to do so for 15 more years. It doesn’t protect detainees from COVID exposure, which again, Chilel said was dangerously high even when facilities followed procedure. And it doesn’t change the fact that asylum-seekers and immigrants are being locked up like prisoners, in times where prisoners too should be released from confinement for their and the public’s safety. 

If anything, AB 3228 is an incremental step, a bandaid to alleviate ICE’s violations of AB 32. It’s the state trying to clean up its own mess. This, and COVID itself, are showing the incompetence of our government, both to protect its citizens and to implement ‘gradual’ change. We don’t need more half-reforms. Might AB 3228 help some detained individuals if passed? Yes, completely. And we should urge Newsom to pass it for that alone. But what we really need is radical change in how we conceptualize immigrants, and how we treat them as a state and as a nation. Our current system cannot be fixed because it is functioning exactly how it was designed to function: to treat non-citizens and BIPOC like criminals, to control them, and to circulate ever-increasing amounts of public capital to a space that benefits nobody except the few at the top.

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