Uinta County residents confronted their county commissioners over the ICE detention facility proposed for outside Evanston last week, on the same day that Gov. Mark Gordon said the controversial plan is local officials’ call.
In Evanston on Oct. 15, county commissioners fielded questions from residents opposed to the facility in a rare public hearing on the proposal, which has hovered over the community for two years. Residents pressed commissioners for information about negotiations with CoreCivic, the second for-profit prison company interested in the proposal, after revelations that the commission opted not to publicize a significant development — a previous company’s withdrawal.
“I don’t understand why so much of the business of this project has been conducted behind closed doors and not out in the open,” said Katie Beppler, an Evanston resident. “The appearance is you have more allegiance to private prison companies than your constituents.”
ICE has requested proposals for a contract to build a detention center near Salt Lake City that can hold up to 1,000 people. Two private prison companies have approached the commission with interest to build the facility on a tract of empty land it owns. Both the county commission and the Evanston City Council have voted in support of the proposal.
Commissioners argued they’ve not been secretive, just reserved about a project that is in flux. There’s been a lot of confusion about the proposal, Uinta County Commission Chairman Eric South said. “I know that there’s a lot of concern and perhaps a lot of disinformation,” South said, while outlining local officials’ efforts to vet the project, including visiting privately run immigration jails in other states.
During a press conference in Cheyenne on the same afternoon, Gordon called the proposal a local issue, and said he has met with county commissioners and heard from proposal opponents.
“Believe me I’ve heard a tremendous amount of kickback,” Gordon said. “I respect all that has been said about, ‘is this the right thing for Wyoming, is this the right thing for Evanston, is this the way we want our state to be viewed,’ and so on and I do take that quite seriously.”
Asked whether he’d spend state money on such a project, Gordon said no request for state loans has surfaced but that he’d have to carefully consider the project and whether it was financially sound. “I’d have to really consider that. I don’t know exactly,” Gordon said, noting that ICE recently doubled the proposed size of the facility.
“The advice I’ve given [Uinta County officials] is: Wyoming stands behind you in your economic development efforts and I hope you broaden and diversify those,” Gordon said.
Gordon also said his views on the matter are informed by a 2018 legal opinion from former Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael regarding the ICE proposal. In that opinion Michael advised Wyoming’s statewide elected officials they likely did not have standing to interfere in the matter.
“The conclusion of this Office is that the immigration detention center is not a private correctional facility subject to the authority of the five state elected officials,” Michael wrote in the opinion. “We therefore advise that you take no action in this matter.”
A spokesperson for former Gov. Matt Mead previously told WyoFile in December 2017 that the project didn’t fall under state statute governing private prisons because it was a detention facility. The distinction keeps Uinta County officials from having to seek the approval of the state’s five statewide elected officials — the state auditor, treasurer, state superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and governor.
Michael wrote the opinion in response to “repeated inquiries” made of the five statewide elected officials from both members of the public and public officials, he wrote.
“I have had and will continue to have conversations with the county commissioners,” Gordon said, “but it is up to them to ultimately make those decisions.”
The proposed jail is gaining increasing public attention, however, including from immigration activists in nearby Salt Lake City. ICE has proposed the jail outside Evanston to house immigrants picked up in the region while they await deportation proceedings in a Salt Lake City court. While Salt Lake City is not a “sanctuary city” that does not cooperate with federal agencies detaining immigrants, commissioners have said Uinta County and Wyoming’s Republican politics makes the area an appealing alternative to the progressive city.
A “broad coalition” of Utah immigration and criminal justice activist groups are strategizing on a campaign to oppose the facility, Kristin Knippenberg with the Salt Lake City Sanctuary Solidarity Network told WyoFile on Monday. The groups hope to support Uinta County residents who oppose the proposal, Knippenberg said.
“They’ve been doing the bulk of the work for a long time so we’re proud to stand with them and to assist in providing their community with alternatives to the prison as well as to protect our own community,” Knippenberg said. It may be proposed over the border, but the jail would impact immigrant communities in Utah, Knippenberg said.
“It’s a local issue for us as well,” she said. “It’s our people that are going to wind up there.”
WyoSayNo — a Wyoming advocacy group formed to oppose the proposal — uncovered through a public records request that Management Training Corporation, the project’s original and long-time proponent, had abandoned its interest but officials had not informed the public. CoreCivic subsequently approached the county, and in late August officials traveled to California to visit a CoreCivic immigration jail there.
Management Training Corporation is headquartered near Salt Lake City, and has faced public pushback there for detaining immigrants. In August, a company spokesperson told WyoFile MTC was withdrawing its interest in the Evanston proposal to focus on other areas of its business.
At last week’s meeting, commissioner South said officials had not spoken to CoreCivic since the August trip. Since then, ICE doubled the proposed capacity of the facility to 1,000 detainees.
The commissioners and the mayor of Evanston are all advocates for the proposal, which they say will spur economic development. Last week’s meeting was dominated by opponents, but some supporters were present.
“Is the poverty in this town not ugly enough for you to not realize the detention center is going to help some people?” asked an attendee of opponents.