Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman said a federal immigration jail proposed for Uinta County does not count as a private prison under Wyoming statute and doesn’t require the Governor’s approval to be constructed.
The jail is proposed by a private-prison company, Management Training Corporation, to hold increasing numbers of people arrested by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. As of October, county officials said they remained uncertain whether the proposal would require the approval of Wyoming’s five state elected officials, as state law requires for private prison contracts with local governments. A spokesperson for Mead told WyoFile at the time that the governor was unaware of the proposal.
However, “unlike a prison, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility does not require the Governor’s approval,” the spokesman wrote in an email to WyoFile last week. The governor’s staff consulted the Wyoming attorney general to reach that answer, Communications Director David Bush said. County officials and representatives of the company, MTC, never sought Mead’s approval, he said.
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 Secretary of State Ed Murray.
Mead’s spokesman Bush did not provide further detail on how the decision was reached. Peter Michael, the Wyoming Attorney General, wrote to WyoFile that “it has been some time since I have been briefed or have reviewed this issue, so I am not in a position to comment.”
Uinta County officials recently held a conference call with representatives of Management Training Center and a financing company, Municipal Capital Markets Group, of Denver, Colorado according to a report in the Uinta County Herald. During the call, MTC representative Mike Murphy suggested company representatives and county officials should make overtures to Mead, even as those on the call continued to debate if the project fell under private-prison statutes. “It would be helpful if we can get the governor’s blessing,” said Murphy, according to the report. “The governor sets the pace.”
When it comes to Wyoming’s own prisoners, Mead has expressed reluctance to pursue for-profit prisons, despite companies proposing solutions to ongoing challenges with the state’s correctional facilities. Such companies might not be open to rehabilitation or reeducation programs Wyoming residents might want for the state’s inmates, he told reporters during a press conference in July.
A prison is a prison is a prison?
MTC representative Murphy has said the immigration jail 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 — surrounded by security cameras and high chain-link fences topped with coiled barbed wire.
Today, many immigrants arrested by ICE in Wyoming are sent to an immigration jail operated by a different for-profit company, GEO, in Aurora, Colorado outside Denver. WyoFile visited that jail for a story on how ICE activity has left some Casper mothers to support families alone.
The GEO jail also looks like a community college, but one surrounded by chain-link fences. When family and friends go to visit the civil detainees inside, they are separated from them by a glass partition and speak through a telephone. The detainees wear orange jumpsuits.
Detainees in the Evanston jail would be guarded by officers paid commensurate to what the Wyoming Department of Corrections pays its correctional officers, Murphy, the MTC representative, said in October. Detainees will have access to education and vocational programs similar to those offered in Wyoming’s prisons. Local law enforcement has been assured security will be tight at the facility to prevent escapes, according to a report in the Uinta County Herald.
For now, the next move for the proposed Evanston jail would probably be by the federal government. MTC sent its proposal in response to an official Request for Information from the Department of Homeland Security, which was seeking new immigration jails around the country. Murphy told Uinta County officials he believed their proposal was the strongest for the Salt Lake City area, according to the Uinta County Herald report.
However, the federal government’s contracting process is not fast. DHS will next send out a Request for Proposals.
Meanwhile, immigration and civil rights activists in Wyoming are gearing up for a fight. In an editorial in the Casper Star-Tribune earlier this month, ACLU of Wyoming director Sabrina King and Antonio Serrano, the director of a Cheyenne-based immigration group called Juntos Wyoming, denounced the proposal. A campaign called #WyoSayNo! is set to launch in January, according to its website.
Serrano hopes the campaigners can convince state residents that just as they may oppose a private prison for their own, so too would they oppose one being built to house the state’s undocumented immigrants, he said.
“It seems like people forget how intertwined immigrants are to our community, especially rural, agricultural communities,” he said. “They’re part of Wyoming.”
“The big goal is to shut her down,” he said of the proposed jail.