The for-profit prison company that proposed building an immigration jail in Evanston has withdrawn its interest, but a Uinta county commissioner says a different prison company will keep the project alive.
County officials were notified of the development in the contentious initiative weeks ago, but chose not to issue a drafted press release to notify the public, according to communications provided to WyoFile.
The federal government officially requested proposals for a 250-500-bed immigrant detention center last month, two years after city and county officials passed resolutions to support Management Training Corporation’s proposal.
But Management Training Corporation, which brought the idea to Uinta County after Salt Lake City politics soured on increased immigration enforcement, won’t be submitting a proposal, according to first-year county commissioner Mark Anderson and confirmed by the company. The company informed commissioners about three weeks ago that they were no longer interested in the project, Anderson told WyoFile in an interview on Friday.
The company had previously been involved with the county commission and the city council to the point of providing draft language for official resolutions approving its project. MTC was light on details as to why it was walking away, Anderson said. “They told us it was a business decision,” he said. The company had told the Uinta County Herald as recently as early July that it would be advancing a proposal.
As such, the sudden change of heart was “a huge shocker,” Anderson said.
In an email on Monday, an MTC spokesperson said the company backed away after deciding to prioritize growth in other areas of its business. “We deeply appreciate the relationships we’ve had with the leaders and community of Uinta County and the City of Evanston,” spokesman Issa Arnita wrote. “We wish them continued success.”
However, a different prison company, CoreCivic, approached local officials and said it would submit a bid, Anderson said. “They came to us and said, ‘we’re interested in moving forward with the detention center,’” he said.
Local officials are planning a visit to a CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Centerin southern California this week, Anderson said, in order to vet the company. That facility is located 24 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the border with Mexico.
“The commissioners and a few city councilors are traveling to a facility in San Diego and doing a tour there,” Anderson said. A local economic development group, which was also involved in MTC’s proposal, will foot the bill for travel, he said.
The land MTC proposed for jail construction belongs to the county, and the commission has been the focal point for local debate on the issue, including a contentious public meeting last summer. Neither Uinta County Commission Chairman Eric South or Commissioner Craig Welling, who have been outspoken proponents of building the immigration jail, responded to repeated interview requests.
Officials do not appear to have informed the public of the change from one prison company to another or their plans to visit California, prior to Anderson’s interview with WyoFile.
Documents obtained from the county through a public records request and provided to WyoFile by WyoSayNo, an advocacy group created to oppose the jail project, indicate a public notice was written but never published. WyoFile filed a similar public records request this week that was not completed by press time.
“The Commissioners had anticipated MTC would respond to [ICE’s Request for Proposals] with Uinta County as the proposed location,” a draft press release circulated to the commissioners by county clerk Amanda Hutchings in a July 26 email reads. On Monday, Hutchinson confirmed to WyoFile she wrote the draft release. “MTC has given us no reason to believe there were any problems with the RFP or the location; they just simply decided this venture was not in the best interest of their business,” the release read.
The release goes on to express disappointment “from an economic development standpoint,” over lost jobs and revenue opportunities.
“Uinta County has not been approached by any other businesses responding to the RFP,” the never-released press release concludes. “If another business were to approach the Commissioners with interest in our county, a new vetting process would have to begin.”
Such a vetting process is getting underway now with the visit to California, Anderson said. “We’re treading really lightly with it,” Anderson said. “We don’t really know how serious [CoreCivic is] about proceeding. They’re kind of new to this too, they weren’t planning on pursuing this RFP at all for whatever reason.”
Anderson said that officials picked a facility to visit at CoreCivic’s invitation.
Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson counseled the commission against informing the public about Management Training Corporation’s change of heart.
“My advice is to not issue a press release,” Howieson wrote in an email to Hutchinson and the commissioners, also provided by WyoSayNo and confirmed by Hutchinson. Howieson suggested commissioners respond to any media inquiries with: “‘No business has submitted any requests to Uinta County for the transfer or lease of any property at this time.’”
WyoSayNo was unaware of a CoreCivic proposal as of this week.
“We are immensely relieved MTC has told the Uinta County Commissioners they will not be bidding on the proposed immigration prison,” the group wrote in a statement to WyoFile. “But that relief is temporary, because it leaves us wondering why commissioners have not been more open about what is going on with this process.”
WyoSayNo speculated that county commissioners could now be encouraging either CoreCivic or GEO, another large private prison company, to submit proposals. The group accused local officials of operating behind closed doors on behalf of private interests.
“Why is this all happening behind closed doors?” WyoSayNo wrote in a press release. “When so-called ‘economic development opportunities’ turn local government representatives into secretive agents for private profit, we should be concerned. And when that private profit comes from ripping families and communities apart and endangering local economies by making them dependent on detention, the answer to whether or not this is the ‘road to the future’ is clear: absolutely not.”
Tough time for the detention business?
MTC’s immigration detention facilities have drawn public scrutiny and concern in the past, as have CoreCivic’s. Management at MTC’s correctional facilities in Mississippi, not associated with immigration, have raised public safety concerns and are the subject of at least two lawsuits, according to a report published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism outfit focused on criminal justice.
For-profit immigration detention companies also face increasing political headwinds. Projects proposed by MTC and other companies in both Illinois and Michigan have met resistance from political leaders. In Denver, the city council voted this month to end $10 million in correctional facility contracts with CoreCivic and GEO over concerns about the companies’ immigration detention businesses.
The company has new contracts outside the prison industry that are occupying its time, company spokesperson Arnita wrote.
“MTC has experienced a lot of growth in the last six months,” he wrote. “We’re in the middle of transitioning to seven new contracts – most of which are not detention or corrections – which ties up a lot of staff and resources. We also have a large number of other new projects we’re working on, so we had to make a tough business decision as to which opportunities we would be able to pursue.”
But Arnita expressed support for a detention facility in Evanston, though it won’t be his company that builds one. “Without a dedicated detention center near the regional office in Salt Lake County, ICE will have to continue sending detainees to local jails or to facilities that are far from the Wasatch Front,” he wrote, “which takes detainees away from the support of their families, friends and communities.”
CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tennessee has conducted increasing business with Wyoming’s Department of Corrections in recent years. The company runs transitional housing in Cheyenne for WDOC inmates leaving prison. As the state’s prison population swelled to bursting in recent years, CoreCivic also entered a contract with WDOC to house inmates at a private prison in Mississippi.
RFP targets Evanston?
ICE’s official request for proposals from contractors to build and run the jail was issued on July 17. It seeks bids for a contract to run a jail that would hold immigrants picked up by ICE while they await deportation proceedings from a Salt Lake City court. The proposed jail — ICE uses the term ‘detention facility’ — would hold 400 males and 100 females, according to the document.
It is the understanding of county commissioners, and suggested by the RFP, that the jail would hold undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE in the region, as opposed to those detained seeking asylum the border. “Historically, the Salt Lake City … detained population is mainly criminal alien,” the RFP reads. The ‘criminal alien’ designation largely applies to people arrested within the United States, according to ICE’s website.
ICE hopes to award the contract in April 2020, and the facility will need to be operational “no later than 26 months after award,” according to the RFP. At its latest, therefore, Evanston could see an immigration jail built and operational on sagebrush-covered bluffs above Bear River State Park as early as August of 2022.
The RFP outlines security procedures that would need to be in place and the necessity of transportation to and from court in Salt Lake City, the airport there, and various ICE offices around the West. The RFP ostensibly looks for a jail anywhere within a 90-mile radius of Salt Lake City. “These detention services will be performed preferably within a 90-mile radius of the Salt Lake City [Enforcement and Removal Operations] Field Office,” it reads.
However, in a section of the RFP that describes the transportation requirements for the jail contractor, much of the suggested trip mileage lines up neatly with Evanston. While a 180-mile round trip to the Salt Lake City airport could qualify any number of communities, the listed mileage to ICE offices in Reno, Nevada, Twin Falls, Idaho and other locations all also match with Evanston.
Though the bidding process is in theory open to any proposal, it wouldn’t be surprising if ICE had written the RFP with Evanston and even Management Training Corporation in mind, said Barbara Suarez Galeano with Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group whose goal is to end immigration detention completely. The group researches detention proposals throughout the country, and says ICE often writes RFPs with a specific proposal in mind.
“That falls in line with what we’re seeing where sometimes when they put out the RFP they already have in mind the contractor,” Suarez Galeano said.
CoreCivic is evaluating the RFP, a spokesperson said in an email. “As part of an ongoing process, CoreCivic reviews procurements to understand the needs of governments and if we can provide a responsive solution,” spokesperson Brandon Bissell wrote. “To that end, we are conducting our diligence on this RFP and how best to respond. At this stage, it is premature for us to elaborate further – out of respect for the procurement process and for competitive reasons.”
Bissell also touted the company’s management, saying CoreCivic has spent 35 years providing ICE with “safe, humane solutions that respect the dignity of those in our care.”
Debate to go on
The specter of an immigration jail in Evanston has already engendered considerable debate in both the economically struggling small town and the state at large.
In Evanston this weekend, opponents of the facility held their second annual “Fiesta de Familias” event, which drew people opposed to the prison together to celebrate families they say detention policies tear apart.
Supporters of the endeavor say jobs are hard to come by in Evanston, and that immigration detention will go on regardless of whether the community plays its part or not. Anderson, the newest county commissioner, echoed that sentiment last week. “Any decision that I make pertaining to this is not saying ‘hey, I agree with every facet of immigration policy,’” he said. “It’s a mess. Everybody knows it’s a mess.”
Anderson suggested building the detention center could help undocumented immigrants by getting them out of state and county correctional facilities where they share cells with “hardened criminals.”
The proposal has also sparked debate on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives over the use of the term “detention facility” to evade a state law that regulates contracts between Wyoming state entities and private prison companies. Gubernatorial candidates debated the issue last year as well, with then-candidate Gov. Mark Gordon declaring his support for local control over the project.