The Wyoming House debated about a proposed private ICE prison in Uinta County on Wednesday, with some lawmakers charging state officials with twisting words to avoid state constitutional and legal oversight.
Lawmakers criticized those who define the project as a “civil holding facility,” which means the project wouldn’t be regulated by state laws that govern jails and prisons.
Debate on the facility proposed for outside of Evanston arose during the final discussion of a bill, SF-89 Local government distributions, that directs $105 million in state funds to local governments. The Legislature has authorized such an appropriation for decades, though it is usually done through the budget and not in a separate bill. Four House members, led by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), proposed an amendment to say none of that money could be used to pursue an “immigration detention facility” without the Legislature’s authorization.
It’s unclear whether Uinta County officials plan to use state money for the project, which has been proposed by a private prison company, Management Training Center, of Utah. The jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City, a representative of the company told WyoFile in October. It would look similar to an MTC-operated ICE jail in southern California. That jail, just north of the border with Mexico, appears from photos on Google Maps to be a large, squat building — similar in appearance to a public high school or community college — but surrounded by security cameras and high chain-link fences topped with coiled barbed wire.
The amendment failed by just two votes. Even sponsor Zwonitzer was surprised by how close the amendment came to passing, he told WyoFile. Though the measure failed, the discussion showed that some in the House want to see the proposed facility labeled a prison and regulated under Wyoming’s laws.
“If it walks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s a duck,” said Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie).
Both local officials and Gov. Matt Mead have chosen not to call the proposed facility a prison. Not doing so clears the road for Uinta County and Management Training Center to negotiate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, largely without worrying about state oversight.
Local governments are allowed, according to statute, to write contracts with private prison companies. Before that can happen, however, local governments must receive the consent of the state’s five statewide elected officials. Today, that means Gov. Matt Mead, State Treasurer Mark Gordon, State Auditor Cynthia Cloud, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and newly-appointed Secretary of State Ed Buchanan.
By avoiding naming the facility proposed by private prison company Management Training Center a “prison,” Uinta County and Evanston officials avoid that hurdle.
“It’s actually officially being called a civil holding facility, and that’s how it really gets around any state oversight right now,” Zwonitzer said when he introduced the amendment.
Another amendment sponsor, Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), went further. “They are skirting our Constitution,” he said. “Article 1 section 16 — look it up. It’s all based on the premise that they don’t call it a jail.”
The section of the Wyoming Constitution that Lindholm referenced addresses prisoner treatment. It calls for the “erection of safe and comfortable prisons,” the inspection of prisons and the “humane treatment of prisoners.”
If the state doesn’t have oversight over a prison facility, they can’t enforce those constitutional requirements, Lindholm told WyoFile after the vote.
“It makes it unconstitutional regardless of what they call that thing down there,” he said.
One lawmaker from southwestern Wyoming argued against the amendment to SF-89, saying the project had support in Evanston. “I was at an economic development meeting in the town where this was proposed and they were in favor of it,” said Rep. Tom Crank (R-Kemmerer). Others, like Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) said the Legislature shouldn’t interfere with local decisions by attaching strings to funding distribution.
The Legislature frequently uses footnotes to the budget bill to regulate local entities, House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) argued back. “It is totally appropriate on our part to put sideboards on what the state gives out,” she said.
House rules call for only voice votes on amendments. No roll call was taken; however, the voice vote was close enough to require House members to stand up so their votes could be counted.
The amendment was defeated 27-32. The House passed the bill 56-3 with one representative excused.