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A stand worth taking: The campaign against private prisons

Antonio Serrano(photo provided by ACLU of Wyoming)

Growing up, my father always told me stories about people like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa and Mexica/Aztec warriors like Cuauhtémoc. 

I’m reminded of these men, Mexican revolutionaries who fought for the gente — the people — and defended the defenseless, when I think of WyoSayNo’s campaign for the last two years against the proposed immigration prison in Uinta County.

This campaign has been fueled by Wyoming people who care — people whose hard work ensures we are able to work and advocate on behalf of the immigrants who call Wyoming home. For people of color it’s in our blood to fight back against those who oppress us and like those who came before us and paved the way, we will raise our voices for our people and we will fight for our people.  

The campaign started in 2018 when the Utah-based Management & Training Corporation approached Uinta County and Evanston officials with a proposal to build an immigration detention facility outside of Evanston for the U.S. Immigration and Customs agency. MTC officials said its facility would give the Evanston community what it needed most — jobs and revenue. 

Jobs? A few. Revenue? Crumbs. But what this detention facility — or rather, a prison — would do is rip families apart. A private immigration prison needs to be filled and needs to stay filled. The point of these prisons is to make a profit and they only do that by preying on the community around them and tearing families apart to fill their prison cells and their pockets.

So people and organizations across the state, including Juntos, The Sierra Club, The Immigration Alliance of Casper, the ACLU of Wyoming, and numerous faith leaders and business owners, came together to show everyone that Wyoming doesn’t want this prison. MTC finally relented. But then CoreCivic, another private prison company that puts profit above lives, was interested.

At times, the WyoSayNo campaign has felt like a losing fight. Despite public opposition to the proposed immigration prison, Uinta County commissioners continually worked to ensure the prison would be built while neglecting to inform the community about what exactly they were doing.

Sometimes, it felt like no matter what we did or said, they kept pushing forward. Earlier this year, Uinta County commissioners even unanimously voted to pass a land transfer resolution authorizing the sale of county property for the prison. 

It was disheartening, to be sure. But, like I said before, fighting is in our blood so we kept the campaign going. Now CoreCivic has said it will no longer submit a response to ICE to build the immigration prison.

The feeling I felt when I was told CoreCivic was out is indescribable. It was planning on cycling 800 people though this prison a month! This prison would have caused the pain and suffering of countless families across our state and region while wreaking havoc on the local community.

The ACLU and the WyoSayNo campaign, however, will keep the fight going. There’s no guarantee, after all, that another private prison company won’t show interest in building here. Our work won’t stop until the threat of a private prison is gone from Wyoming. 

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But the WyoSayNo campaign has grown into something bigger than just this fight. 

We’re empowering immigrant communities across Wyoming as we fight for our families and communities. We’re educating immigrants and their allies on their rights so they are able to advocate for themselves and their families. We’re working to empower them with the tools they need to organize and take whatever action is needed in their communities. 

The principles of freedom, equality and justice listed in the U.S. Constitution are not equitably applied to, or enjoyed by, all people in this county because of historic and systemic racism and other forms of oppression. Inequitable enforcement of our laws and policies, as well as the laws and policies themselves, can reinforce systems of oppression, exclusion and disenfranchisement for many groups of people, including immigrants. 

But because of the work done by the people and organizations involved in the WyoSayNo campaign, it feels like we’ve already won. There is no doubt we are living in a difficult time, but this victory is proof we are not broken and we are not conquered. We will make it out the other side stronger and more unified.

I am very thankful for all of the people we have brought together to build such a strong coalition and campaign. I feel like we have done something unique to Wyoming and I look forward to taking on whatever comes at us next. We will continue to fight for the community we want — not the one private prison companies and ICE want. We are here to keep our families together, to protect our rural communities and to say “If you want to come to Wyoming and go after our family, friends and neighbors, be ready for a hell of a fight.”


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Antonio Serrano: Antonio Serrano is a Cheyenne-based organizer for the ACLU. Prior to joining that organization he founded Juntos, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for immigrants. He was born and raised in Wyoming.