The Washington state Senate has passed a bill banning private, for-profit prisons and detention facilities. The legislation would close a Tacoma facility currently operating under a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The bill would prohibit any person, business, or state or local governmental entity from operating a private detention facility within the state. It would also prohibit state or local governments from making contracts with any state-based private detention facilities. The bill would allow any facilities currently operating under a government contract to remain open until the contract ends.
Lastly, the bill would include exemptions for facilities used to rehabilitate people with substance use disorders as well as inmates detained under the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.
As of March 31, the only private prison in Washington state is the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, according to the Tacoma News Tribune. The center is owned and operated by the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the nation, under a contract with ICE. The legislation would close the facility after its contract expires in 2025.
The state House has already approved its own version of the bill. As such, the legislation will now head to Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s desk. In a statement released Tuesday, Inslee said he is “supportive of bills to restrict private prisons in Washington” and will review the legislation soon.
In a legislative hearing before the bill came to a vote, Angelina Godoy, director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, told lawmakers that her center had to sue GEO Group and ICE for documents detailing conditions in the Tacoma facility.
Among its findings, the documents allegedly showed that, on average, the Tacoma ICE facility held people for longer in solitary confinement than any other ICE detention facility in the U.S., the Tribune reported. GEO Group’s Director of Community Outreach Emanuel Barr told the publication that its facilities have “multiple layers of accountability” and insisted that the company is being used as a “political scapegoat.”
After California passed similar legislation in 2019, GEO Group sued the state, alleging that the law would “undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration law.” However, California successfully argued in a federal court that states should be allowed to ensure the welfare of their detainees, KNKX reported.
The Washington state Attorney General’s Office has signaled that it will also defend the ban in court, if necessary.
The Washington legislation notes that 22 other states have enacted similar bans. It also alleges that abusive, dangerous and unsanitary conditions have been “consistently and repeatedly documented” within for-profit prisons.
For instance, the legislation claims that private, for-private prisons have higher rates of assaults and use-of-force by guards than what occurs in facilities overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Private prison staff also receive 60 fewer hours in training and $5,000 less in pay than staff workers at publicly run facilities, the legislation reports.
Furthermore, the legislation says that for-profit prisons cut costs on prisoner food, healthcare and rehabilitative services in order to maximize their shareholders’ profits. As such, the facilities’ motivations contrast with the state’s interest in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of inmates, the legislation states.
Newsweek contacted GEO Group for comment.