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Bill would ban private prisons in Washington

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 30, 2020

By Daisy Zavala The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington has no private prisons, and a bill being considered by the Senate would keep it that way, banning private detention facilities even when they have contracts with federal agencies.

The bill would also prohibit the state from extending or renewing a contract with a private immigration detention center in Tacoma and could affect contracts with private work-release operators.

Making sure people receive the treatment and rehabilitation they need to return to their communities is a public responsibility, said Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.

“There is a growing rise of privatizing detention and prison facilities (nationally), and this confuses the purpose of why we’re detaining people,” she said. “It puts in this element of profit and quotas.”

Under the bill, no business, state or local government would be allowed to sign an agreement with any out-of-state governmental or private organization. Any existing agreements between organizations would be allowed to continue until they expire.

Nursing homes, residential rehabilitation centers and secure community transition and living facilities would be exempt.

Tacoma Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker said a city committee last year looked into concerns at the Northwest Detention Center, operated by a private company for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The review determined some people were detained in the center for more than three years and the center’s oversight lacked transparency, he said.

Federal law does not require private detention facilities to follow ICE protocols, he said.

“It’s difficult to determine what consequences follow when a private prison or corporation fails to meet the ICE standards for detention centers,” Blocker added.

If the bill becomes law, the company that operates the detention center wouldn’t be allowed to renew or extend the current contract, Saldaña said. Currently, the state Department of Corrections contracts with private entities for eight out of its 12 work-release programs.

Melena Thompson, department director of executive policy and legislative affairs, suggested the bill be amended to exempt some work-release facilities operated by the DOC. According to a fiscal note for the bill, those facilities contract with private providers for certain services because it’s less expensive than using state employees.

Saldaña said she’ll consider making the change as the bill moves forward.

A U.S. Department of Justice inspector general report found that assaults on staff in private prisons occur at a rate that’s two times higher than in public prisons. Assaults on inmates were almost 30% higher.

Speaking on behalf of OneAmerica, an organization advocating for immigrants and refugees, Orlando Cano cited a 2018 report by the Sentencing Project that found the number of people in private prisons has gone up 40% over the past 16 years.

“We don’t believe it’s good business practice to be profiting off incarceration,” he said.

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