California Takes Steps to Eliminate For-Profit Prisons

A GEO Group detention facility in Adelanto, CA. ( Image )

A GEO Group detention facility in Adelanto, CA. (Image)


Last week, the California state legislature made a bold statement by passing AB32, a bill designed to end for-profit and private incarceration in the state. The bill bars the state from signing new contracts with for-profit prison companies beginning in 2020, and will phase out for-profit facilities entirely by 2028. Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign the bill, making good on his January 2019 inauguration promise that California “will end the outrage of private prisons once and for all.” There are currently 2,222 prisoners housed in for-profit facilities in California. The state originally turned to for-profit firms for corrections facilities to alleviate problems of overcrowding and underfunding in public prisons. The current population of for-profit facilities is already scaled back from its height of 7,000 prisoners in 2016.

The situation in California is especially complicated as GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, owns four facilities in California, two of which are Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. For-profit corporations and ICE engage in complex contracts, and the cities where these facilities are located act as middlemen in the deals. According to Lizbeth Abeln with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, “What ICE does is they locate in these very poor and remote areas. The private prison comes in and lobbies and promises jobs and tax money,” so the city becomes involved in the contract process. 

These ICE-private contracts expire in 2020, long before the bill’s mandated 2028 expiration date, but in an additional layer of complication, the bill stipulates that for-profit companies such as GEO Group and CoreCivic, another large corporation with facilities in California, can continue operating after 2020 contract expirations because the state has deemed them necessary to help comply with prison population caps.

AB32 is the next step in California’s quest to eliminate for-profit prisons, after the State Senate passed the Dignity Not Detention Act in 2017. The bill prohibited local governments from contracting with private companies to build additional immigration detention facilities, and added stipulations for detention center standards, including extra protections for LGBTQ immigrants. This bill was, in part, stimulated by reports from detainees of poor conditions, including lack of access to healthcare and increased harassment and solitary confinement for LGBTQ detainees. However, after several California sheriff’s offices cancelled their contracts with ICE, the government agency simply relocated them to physical locations in other states instead of freeing detainees. The question still remains of what will happen to ICE detainees currently housed in for-profit facilities in California after their contracts expire in 2020.

When California eliminates their affiliation with for-profit facilities, they will join the 23 other states that do not employ for-profit prisons. However, 27 states continue to house individuals in for-profit facilities. GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two main players in the California for-profit prison business, are the largest and most prolific corporations nationwide. The Obama administration made strides to reduce and eventually phase out federal utilization of for-profit prison facilities in 2016, but this decision was overturned by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017. The national trend is looking towards states stepping away from the for-profit prison system, but it is yet to be determined how states will replace for-profit prisons and still be able to meet their incarceration needs.