In what a private jail company called an “unprecedented decision,” a federal jail in downtown San Diego was exempted from an executive order issued by President Joe Biden, allowing the facility to remain open.
The Detention Center of the Western Region was the subject to extensive discussion since January 2021, when Biden announced his executive decree to phase out federal contracts with private jail companies.
The West Bank, run by The Geo Group Inc., is hosting U.S. Soldiers awaiting trial and federal conviction.
Because that matters
The U.S. government pays more than $ 50 million a year to a private company to run a federal prison in San Diego. The jail has dealt with many allegations of dangerous conditions for detainees, many of whom are from the San Diego area.
The prison was expected to close in September and again in March, each time receiving last minute suspensions to the surprise of employees and lawyers. The upcoming closing date was supposed to be Thursday.
However, on June 24, the GEO group sent a letter to all employees in the Western Region informing them that the facility would remain open.
“The United States Department of Justice has applied for and been granted an exemption from President Biden’s executive order,” the letter said.
“We are grateful to all those who worked behind the scenes to achieve this great result,” he says.
According to the letter, the GEO Group contract for the operation of the prison was extended until September 2023 and could be extended until September 2027 if the Marshals Service decides to opt for additional contract periods.
“We will continue to work to ensure that the (Western Region) continues to operate indefinitely,” the letter said. “This unprecedented decision is due in part to your outstanding performance. “Thank you for everything you do and for being a member of a great team led by great leaders.”
The ruling was hailed by union officials representing the 300 prison staff, but was criticized by supporters of criminal justice reform, who say it could encourage efforts to defy Biden’s executive order.
“It matters because it means that the executive order does not make sense,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior attorney at the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “They are words on paper and they are another proof that the people in power know the right things to say, but they never support those words with deeds.”
Biden’s executive order states that private detention facilities “do not maintain the same levels of security and safety for individuals in the federal criminal justice system or for prison staff.” He also points out that “mass inclusion imposes significant costs and difficulties on our society and communities and does not make us safer.”
Since the executive order was issued, some private federal prisons have been able to remain open temporarily through short-term contract extensions or by finding complex solutions. In Ohio, CoreCivic abandoned its contract with the U.S. Army and handed it over to county officials, who then subcontracted the work back to CoreCivic, which allowed a federal prison to remain open.
However, experts were unaware of any formal exemptions granted by the Biden government other than those granted to the Western Region last week.
“It sets a precedent that such a thing is possible,” Bacilli said.
“What are the criteria for granting such an exemption?” he added. “What would prevent any private penitentiary company from applying and receiving one?”
The Marshals Service and the GEO Group did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Following the announcement of the executive decree, local and national coalitions sent letters to the federal government requesting an exemption for the Western Region.
That includes San Diego Regional Chamber of CommerceThe Working Council of San Diego and the Imperial Counties and National Union of Blacks in Criminal Justice. Representative Scott Peters, D-San Diego, whose constituency includes the Western District, sent his own letter to the White House.
The groups argued that the closure of the Western District would harm detainees, who would have to be transferred hundreds of miles away from their courthouses, possibly hampering their ability to see lawyers and family members.
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the Biden government’s exclusion of the Western Region was the right decision.
“It’s a victory for the workers and the people of San Diego, for sure,” he said.
Erwin and union members have called on the Biden government to intervene for more than a year. Some sent handmade postcards to the White House asking Biden to save their jobs.
By the time the Western District was days away from closing in March, most detainees had been relocated and workers had received letters with expiration dates.
“All this uncertainty has made things very difficult for the workforce there, so we are very happy with a long-term solution,” Erwin said.
Public records provided in response to a ACLU lawsuit show that the Marshals Service began looking for ways to keep the Western Region open shortly after the executive order was issued.
In April 2021, an auxiliary chief of the Marshals Service emailed the GEO Group, asking if the company would consider taking over the San Diego government prison contract and then subcontracting to San Diego officials, effectively allowing GEO Group to continue operating the prison.
Until August, the GEO Group was working with the small, moneyless town of McFarland, 150 miles north of San Diego, to try to secure the contract. In an email, a U.S. deputy military chief commented on the idea, saying, “Well, it’s a great opportunity, but hopefully it will pass.”
“The U.S. military is working hard to undermine the executive order from the outset,” Bacilli told the ACLU.
“It is an old dilapidated facility that should only be closed for the safety of the people inside,” he added.
Prisoners and public defenders have been complaining for years about conditions in the Western District, and the GEO Group is facing two class action lawsuits over the management of the San Diego prison.
Erwin, with the workers’ union, has defended the prison history and said the allegations of unsafe living conditions were unfounded.
The San Diego federal defendersrepresenting many of the detainees in the Western District, has advocated the use of the executive order as an opportunity to reduce bonds and offer pre-trial release to more clients, most of whom face nonviolent charges.
But the ACLU emails – the first batch released in response to the lawsuit – do not mention efforts to reduce the prison population. Instead, Marshals officials are trying to find new locations to house detainees.
“This will be a mess if they really try to shut them down!” wrote a Marshals employee.
Vakili said the ACLU would continue to push forward with its lawsuit “to find out to what extent the government is working behind the scenes to achieve this result from the beginning”.
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the journalist, or reported and verified by knowledgeable sources.
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