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WA Bill Would Ban Private Detention Facilities

GEO Group's contract to operate the Northwest Detention Center expires in 2025. (Common Language Project/Flickr)
GEO Group's contract to operate the Northwest Detention Center expires in 2025. (Common Language Project/Flickr)
January 30, 2020

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington lawmakers could bring an end to private prisons in the state this session.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Human Services, Re-entry and Rehabilitation held a public hearing on a bill that prohibits new, and phases out existing, contracts for private detention facilities.

The majority of testifiers expressed support for the bill, including Tacoma's deputy mayor. The city is home to the Northwest Detention Center, a private facility that has held more than 60,000 immigrants during deportation proceedings over the past two decades.

"People see that private companies care about profits but not the communities where their facilities are located, and so there were a number of people testifying -- even Tacoma city council members and others who recognize that putting profits before people is not Washington values," relates Enoka Herat, police practices and immigration counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The operator of the Northwest Detention Center, GEO Group, estimates it makes $57 million a year when all its beds are full. Its contract runs through 2025.

Some people at the hearing expressed concern that the bill might be too broad, asking lawmakers to ensure it doesn't outlaw work-release programs with private facilitators.

Maru Mora Villalpando is a community organizer with La Resistencia, an organization working to end immigrant detention and advocating for people in the Northwest Detention Center. She says a variety of groups testified at the hearing, including indigenous and Japanese American groups.

Folks also testified about the environment within private facilities.

"They all explained how horrible conditions are in regards to being in detention because these private corporations don't have oversight," Villalpando states. "They're not accountable. They obviously profit, and they cut corners in regards to conditions."

Villalpando says a hearing is scheduled for the House version of this bill on Monday at 1 p.m. A similar California law went into effect this year.

GEO Group has sued the state over the law, calling it "a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA