Salt Lake City’s resistance to a federal immigration jail seen as an opening for Evanston

Jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents patrol for undocumented immigrants in Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork on Wednesday March 12, 2008, regularly visiting the jail to determine who to process and how quickly.

This article was originally published on WyoFile.

Uinta County officials have endorsed a private company’s proposal to build a for-profit immigration jail near Evanston, Wyo.

Both Evanston’s City Council and Uinta County’s Commission unanimously passed resolutions in June to support the Utah-based Management Training Corporation’s plan to build and manage the federal detention center just outside Evanston city limits. The jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City.

Uinta officials are uncertain whether they need Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials to approve the project. It is possible a jail holding immigration detainees does not require the same level of approval as other forms of private prisons regulated under Wyoming law, a county official said. Either way, MTC’s efforts to jail immigration detainees from throughout the northern rockies in Uinta County have thus far gone largely without notice.

The private jail would be similar to an MTC-operated ICE detention facility in Southern California, said Mike Murphy, MTC’s vice president of corrections marketing. That facility, just north of the border with Mexico, appears from photos on Google Maps to be a large squat building — similar in appearance to a high school or community college — surrounded by high chain-link fences topped with coiled barbed wire. Security cameras mounted on poles watch the fences. It has the capacity for 782 detainees, according to MTC’s website.

For MTC, having the support of local officials is a boon, Murphy said. “ICE is pleased with the support, they’re pleased with the location of Evanston,” he said. He was not aware of any competing bids in the area, he said.

ICE put out a public request for possible detention facility sites on Oct. 12. MTC, based in Centerville, had submitted an unsolicited proposal before that and is now going through the federal bid process.

(Map courtesy of Google Maps) Immigration and Customs Enforcement is requesting information for potential detention sites within 180 miles of a field office at 2975 S. Decker Lake Drive in West Valley City.

A prison by any other name

Local governments are allowed, according to statute, to contract with private entities for prison construction. Before that can happen, however, local governments must receive the consent of the state’s five elected officials. Today, that means Gov. Matt Mead, Treasurer Mark Gordon, Auditor Cynthia Cloud, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Secretary of State Ed Murray.

Mead was not aware of the private jail proposed in Uinta County, nor was his staff, said public relations officer Chris McGhee. “We are excited to learn more and look further into it,” McGhee said.

Though the resolutions supporting the endeavor passed in June, Uinta County staff has not reached out to the five officials, County Attorney Loretta Howieson said. They’re waiting to see if MTC can win the contract from ICE first.

They’re also not convinced an ICE detention facility would be subject to the same state laws that would apply to a private prison.

“It is not per se a correctional facility,” Howieson said, instead describing the potential facility as “a civil holding facility for immigration services.” Those held in the facility wouldn’t be inmates but “civil detainees,” she said.

“These are individuals who have not necessarily broken the law,” and instead are awaiting hearings to determine whether they are in the country legally or not, Howieson said.

The facility would hold ICE detainees an average of 30 to 45 days while they await hearings in Salt Lake City, Murphy, the MTC representative, said. He outlined various aspects of how the new facility could operate. “There will be transport buses going back and forth,” he said. While waiting, detainees will be guarded by officers paid commensurate to what the Wyoming Department of Corrections pays its correctional officers. Detainees will have access to education and vocational programs similar to those offered in Wyoming’s prisons. Local law enforcement has been assured security will be tight at the facility to prevent escapes, according to a report in the Uinta County Herald. The civil detainees would not be allowed to leave.

There is no distinction between an immigration detainee and an inmate, said Casper immigration attorney John Huss. “The only difference is how you spell it,” he said. “Incarcerated is incarcerated.”

Well-paying jobs

Like much of Wyoming, Evanston has been suffering from a downturn in the oil and gas industry. The MTC facility has the potential to create between 100 to 120 jobs, proponents say. The starting salary for a correctional officer would be approximately $21 an hour, a number Murphy said was “pretty much” guaranteed for a federal contract that would be regulated by U.S. Department of Labor rules.

“That’s a pretty good job in this area nowadays,” South said. People with just high school diplomas would be eligible for many of the jobs, he said.

The programming MTC would seek to provide in the prison could also create jobs for educators and medical professionals, Murphy said.

The county owns 1,000 acres east of Evanston, near Bear River State Park. MTC would lease a piece of it, and also pay property taxes to the county, South said. “It’s not going to cost us,” he said, “it’s all going to be positive that way.”

Though residents and officials said the majority of the town supported the idea, the proposal was not without detractors in Evanston. Kayne Pyatt spoke against it at a public meeting in May. The town could be left with an empty prison, she told WyoFile last week. She also doubts the jobs would benefit residents as much as the company has promised, she said.

“I can’t see high school kids graduating and going out and being guards at a prison,” she said. “I think [MTC] would bring in their own people.”

If the company did hire locally, “I wouldn’t want my grandson working there,” she said.

Another Evanston resident, Gina Morrow, said she thinks city and county officials were grasping at the first easy option, after having failed to pursue economic diversity over the years. There is other potential in Evanston, the fifth-generation resident said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

“I just think it’s bad advertisement for our city,” she said of the MTC facility. “That’s not what Evanston’s about.”

The “right” politics?

A private prison may not be the type of economic development people hoped for in Uinta County, but it’s what’s available, said Craig Welling, a county commissioner.

The opportunity has arisen in part from Utah politics, Welling said. Salt Lake City does not consider itself a “sanctuary city,” where local law enforcement is prohibited from interacting with ICE. However, in May the city joined others to file a friend-of-the-court brief against a Trump executive order targeting sanctuary jurisdictions. Such antipathy to a federal immigration crackdown extends to the surrounding counties, Welling said.

Not so in Evanston, a fact that helped attract MTC. “Our politics are right, which is probably at the top of the list at this point,” Welling said. “In the Wasatch Front, the politics are not friendly anymore for a facility like this.”

The need for a detainment facility in the area predates the Trump administration, however, Murphy said. The projected number of 500 beds is based on the numbers of ICE detainees held in various Utah county jails over the past 10 years while awaiting hearings. The facility would have the potential to be expanded to 1,000 beds, he said.

“There’s always a risk with these facilities,” Murphy said. The risk is that the nation’s immigration policy could change and detentions would slow — either because of decreased enforcement policies or a reformed immigration system that gives more people paths to citizenship or slows the number of people entering the country illegally. But in this case, Murphy said he believed ICE was being “strategic” with the amount of detainment capacity it’s looking for.

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