ACLU to Biden administration: Shut down private prison in downtown San Diego

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A perspective view of white iron jail cell bars and a closed sliding bar door on a dark background

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The American Civil Liberties Union urged the Biden administration Tuesday to shut down a private federal detention facility in downtown San Diego on the same day its operators announced it had secured a contract extension to keep the facility open for another six months.

The downtown facility’s contract with the U.S. Marshals Service was set to expire Sept. 30, but through a recent agreement with the Kern County city of McFarland, private prison operator GEO Group Inc. will be able to keep the 770-bed Western Region Detention Facility open past this month.

Though President Joe Biden signed an executive order barring the U.S. Department of Justice from renewing contracts with privately owned detention facilities, the ACLU alleges GEO Group has endeavored to circumvent the order through an agreement between the U.S. Marshals Service and McFarland.

In a letter to the White House, the ACLU alleges that the “financially strapped” city will contract with the USMS, then subcontract detention services back to GEO in exchange for $500,000, which the ACLU described as a “pass-through scheme” that would allow the company to continue operating its San Diego facility.

The ACLU said, “These legalistic machinations violate the fundamental legal precept that forbids accomplishing indirectly through an agent that which a rule prohibits directly.”

GEO Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ACLU’s claims, but the company did issue a release earlier Tuesday announcing that it has entered into a six-month contract extension with the U.S. Marshals Service to keep WRDF open.

GEO’s release stated that if the San Diego facility closes, alternative locations are likely to be in Central or Northern California, and “such a distant alternative location will impact the timely access by friends, relatives, and legal representatives to individuals presently housed at the Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego.”

GEO’s release also states that it has proposed “various alternative contracting structures to the USMS” that would allow the facility to remain open past the six-month extension date, while remaining in compliance with Biden’s executive order.

In its letter, the ACLU implored the Biden administration to stand by the executive order, while also saying the facility should be shut down due to “a pattern of abuse by GEO at the Western Region Detention Facility and its other California facilities, including medical neglect and gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said many people remain incarcerated “simply because they cannot afford bail. The fact that private prison companies like GEO thumb their noses at policies designed to reduce incarceration proves that their primary concern is maximizing their taxpayer-funded profits, with no regard to the suffering they impose on our communities.

“We urge the administration to use this six-month extension to wind down GEO’s operation of the Western Region Detention Facility rather than using it as an excuse to cement its long-term future there,” Vakili added.

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