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Prison Employee Union Fighting to Stop Closure of San Diego Federal Detention Center

Marshals Service Also Eyeing Work-around

by Keith Sanders

On September 21, 2021, a little over a week before the federal government contract was set to expire at the Western Region Detention Facility (WRDF) in San Diego, the facility’s private operator, Florida-based GEO Group, announced it had secured a six-month extension with the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) to hold detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).

The announcement comes less than a year after incoming President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D) signed an executive order in January 2021 prohibiting DOJ from renewing contracts for detention facilities with private prison operators. That order is being challenged in court by both Democratic and Republican officials in several states, including California. Plus a federal employee union, representing about 300 workers at WRDF, also lobbied to keep it open.

WRDF is the only unionized private prison in the country. Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, teamed up with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, part of the AFL-CIO, to pressure the Biden Administration to renew the USMS contract there.

“These workers provide an invaluable public service to the community,” Erwin said in an August 2021 press conference. “These jobs are critical to these 300 families and the San Diego area, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at seven percent.”

The union leader argued that Executive Order 14006 should not apply to the San Diego facility because it does not serve the same function as a prison that detains individuals convicted of crimes for long periods of time, which he said seems to be the intent of the order. Erwin also pointed out that the order has not been consistently enforced. In May, for example, the Biden Administration allowed the Northeast Ohio Correction Center, used by the USMS, to stay open.

Erwin noted that USMS “does not have the statutory authority to own or operate detention facilities,” so the agency has no other option but to contract with private operators in “areas that lack federal or state options.” Yet somehow the USMS managed to function over 200 years before private, for-profit prison corporations existed.

Before it got a reprieve, WRDF and its imminent closure also attracted the attention of lawmakers, including Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who all expressed their concerns about the order’s impact on USMS.

In an April 2021 letter to the President, they highlighted an internal agency report from February 10, 2021, that said “losing the use of these private detention facilities would be detrimental to USMS districts that currently rely on private facilities.”

The report also mentioned that USMS tries to house its 52,000 detainees close to courthouses to “accommodate defendants’ needs for access to their legal counsel and personal support system, such as family,” and warned that if the Marshals Service were forced to “house prisoners farther from the courthouses, additional transportation resources would be needed.”

USMS spokesperson Lynzey Donahue declined to comment on the report but said the agency is “committed to implementing the president’s executive order,” adding that it was “carefully examining its existing contracts with these facilities, mindful that any plans should avoid unnecessarily disrupting access to counsel, court appearances, and family support.”

Meanwhile, in August 2021, the agenda for the city council in tiny MacFarland, California, 160 miles from WRDF in rural Kern County, included a recommendation to pursue an intergovernmental contract with USMS to house its detainees. The city would then contract with GEO Group, keeping the USMS in technical compliance with Biden’s agenda.

Word of that plan prompted an immediate outcry from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which fired off a letter to the President that read in part:

“Rather than permit GEO to use the next six months to cement the fate of the Executive Order as a dead letter, the Administration should use this opportunity to wind down GEO’s involvement at WRDF entirely.”

That may be too little too late to stop USMS from going through with its work-around plan. To replace that reprieved detention center in Ohio, which is run for the agency by a GEO Group competitor, Tennessee-base CoreCivic, USMS has inked an intergovernmental agreement with Mahoning County to house its detainees. And where will Mahoning County hold them? In a facility operated by CoreCivic, of course.

Biden himself provided a work-around for private prison companies to remain on the government dole when he signed his executive order and limited it to DOJ, meaning it covered facilities used by USMS and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Excluded from it were detention centers privately operated for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, which averaged over 22,000 detainees between October 2021 and January 2022. As reported on p. 32 in this issue of PLN, activists fighting those detention-centers know a thing or two about how slippery their private operators can be. 

Sources: CNN, Government Executive, San Diego Union Tribune

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