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California Passes Bill Allowing ICE Detainees to Sue Private Contractors

In the latest in an ongoing battle between California leaders and ICE officials, state Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) authored AB 3228 to combat abuse and neglect inside private detention facilities. “For-profit private detention centers must be held accountable in the face of egregious human rights violations and harm to the health, safety and welfare of Californians, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bonta said.

AB 3228 was an extension of Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), also proposed by Bonta. AB 32 was passed to end the practice of private-run prisons in California. State-run facilities were responsible for the health and welfare of ICE detainees. If abuses were present, detainees had recourse to hold the federal government accountable through the Federal Tort Claims Act.

But private prison companies, such as the GEO Group, CoreCivic and Management and Training Corp., were not governed by the Act. So, the Assembly adopted AB 32, which held that no new private prisons could be built after January 1, 2021, and existing private detention centers would be phased out at the end of their contracts in 2028. Advocates stated that it was an attempt to stop an oversight scheme that shielded private-prison companies, allowing them to violate the minimum standard of care for detainees with no repercussions.

ICE officials fought back. Days before the bill’s deadline, ICE officials signed contracts worth nearly $6.5 billion for existing facilities run by the contract companies. And certain private company contracts already in existence were extended through 2034.

Paige Hughes, an ICE spokesperson, said, “Any law or policy enacted based on misleading information and false allegations only serves to distract the general public from the facts. Policymakers who strive to make it more difficult to remove dangerous criminal aliens by preventing ICE from procuring suitable detention space within a state or locality simply increase taxpayer costs and force ICE to transport detainees to more remote locations.”

To ensure accountability among private contractors, Bonta then proposed AB 3228, which reads in part: “If a private detention facility operator, or agent of a private detention facility, or person acting on behalf of a detention facility operator, commits a tortious action which violates subdivision (a), an individual who has been injured by that tortious action may bring a civil action for relief. In civil actions brought pursuant to this section, the court, in its discretion, may award the prevailing plaintiff reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.”

A GEO Group spokesperson recently stated that the organization was always committed to treating detainees humanely and with dignity — placing the highest priority on the detainees’ health and safety. The spokesperson said the new law was an attack on government contractors and that the organization is already under intense oversight from the federal government, third-party accreditation organizations and independent auditors. “This bill is nothing more than a distraction from the failed policies of the State of California and a politically motivated attempt to abolish ICE by undermining its ability to carry out its mission in California,” the spokesperson wrote. The GEO Group refused to identify the spokesperson. 



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