Utah private prison company has bowed out of planned Evanston immigration detention center

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this July 12, 2018, photo, activists stage a protest at the private Centerville, Utah, offices of Management & Training Corporation, a private prison company with contracts to hold undocumented immigrants and plans to bid on a project to build an immigrant detention center in Evanston, Wyo., for those with cases in Salt Lake City's immigration court. The company has now withdrawn from the Evanston project without explanation.

This story was produced by WyoFile.com, an independent nonprofit news organization. It is republished here.

The for-profit Utah prison company that proposed building an immigration jail in Evanston, Wyo., has withdrawn its interest, but a Uinta County, Wyo., commissioner says a different prison company will keep the project alive.

County officials were notified of the development in the contentious initiative weeks ago, but chose not to issue a drafted press release to notify the public, according to communications provided to WyoFile, a nonprofit Wyoming news organization.

The federal government officially requested proposals for a 250-500-bed immigrant detention center for people awaiting court hearings in Utah’s immigration court in West Valley City last month, two years after city and county officials passed resolutions to support Utah-based Management & Training Corporation’s proposal. The request for proposals didn’t specify a location but sought bids for sites within 90 miles of Salt Lake City.

But Management Training Corporation (MTC), which brought the idea to Uinta County because Salt Lake City-area politics are hostile to increased immigration enforcement, won’t be submitting a proposal, said Commissioner Mark Anderson and confirmed by MTC. The company informed commissioners about three weeks ago that it was no longer interested in the project, Anderson told WyoFile in an interview on Friday.

The commissioner called the sudden change of heart “a huge shocker.”

Just over a year ago, some 25 people staged a protest at MTC’s offices in Centerville, Utah, calling on the company to abandon its application to build the Evanston detention center and stop profiting from private prisons. Eight were arrested.

Comunidades Unidas, which works with immigrants in Utah, and other Latinos have opposed adding it because more jails might help further policies and crackdowns they say help separate immigrant families.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jacqueline Zamora does one of her regular runs to file paperwork for an attorney to Immigration Court in West Valley City, Jan. 25, 2019. Plans are underway to build a detention center in Evanston, Wyo., for people waiting for their cases to come up in the Utah court, which has a long backlog.

In an email on Monday, an MTC spokesperson said the company backed away after deciding to prioritize growth in other areas of its business. “We deeply appreciate the relationships we’ve had with the leaders and community of Uinta County and the City of Evanston,” spokesman Issa Arnita wrote to WyoFile. “We wish them continued success.”

However, a different prison company, CoreCivic, approached local officials and said it would submit a bid, Anderson said. “They came to us and said, ‘We’re interested in moving forward with the detention center,’” he said.

Local officials are planning a visit to a CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Center in southern California this week, Anderson said, in order to vet the company. That facility is located 24 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the border with Mexico.

The land MTC proposed for jail construction belongs to the county, and the commission has been the focal point for local debate on the issue, including a contentious public meeting last summer. Neither Uinta County Commission Chairman Eric South nor Commissioner Craig Welling, who have been outspoken proponents of building the immigration jail, responded to repeated interview requests.

Officials do not appear to have informed the public of the change from one prison company to another or their plans to visit California, prior to Anderson’s interview with WyoFile.

Documents obtained from the county through a public records request and provided to WyoFile by WyoSayNo, an advocacy group created to oppose the jail project, indicate a public notice was written but never published. WyoFile filed a similar public records request this week that was not completed by press time.

“The Commissioners had anticipated MTC would respond to [ICE’s Request for Proposals] with Uinta County as the proposed location,” a draft press release circulated to the commissioners by county clerk Amanda Hutchings in a July 26 email reads. On Monday, Hutchinson confirmed to WyoFile she wrote the draft release. “MTC has given us no reason to believe there were any problems with the RFP or the location; they just simply decided this venture was not in the best interest of their business,” the release read.

The release goes on to express disappointment “from an economic development standpoint” over lost jobs and revenue opportunities.

“Uinta County has not been approached by any other businesses responding to the RFP,” the never-released press release concludes. “If another business were to approach the Commissioners with interest in our county, a new vetting process would have to begin.”

Such a vetting process is getting underway now with the visit to California, Anderson said. “We’re treading really lightly with it,” he said.

Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson counseled the commission against informing the public about Management Training Corporation’s change of heart.

WyoSayNo, in a statement to WyoFile, said, “We are immensely relieved MTC has told the Uinta County commissioners they will not be bidding on the proposed immigration prison. But that relief is temporary, because it leaves us wondering why commissioners have not been more open about what is going on with this process.”

The group accused local officials of operating behind closed doors on behalf of private interests.

Tough time for detention business?

MTC’s immigration detention facilities have drawn public scrutiny and concern in the past, as have CoreCivic’s. Management at MTC’s correctional facilities in Mississippi, not associated with immigration, have raised public safety concerns and are the subject of at least two lawsuits, according to a report published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism outfit focused on criminal justice.

For-profit immigration detention companies also face increasing political headwinds. Projects proposed by MTC and other companies in both Illinois and Michigan have met resistance from political leaders. In Denver, the City Council voted this month to end $10 million in correctional facility contracts with CoreCivic and GEO over concerns about the companies’ immigration detention businesses.

The company has new contracts outside the prison industry that are occupying its time, company spokesperson Arnita wrote.

“MTC has experienced a lot of growth in the last six months,” he wrote. “We’re in the middle of transitioning to seven new contracts — most of which are not detention or corrections — which ties up a lot of staff and resources. We also have a large number of other new projects we’re working on, so we had to make a tough business decision as to which opportunities we would be able to pursue.”

But Arnita expressed support for a detention facility in Evanston, though it won’t be his company that builds one. “Without a dedicated detention center near the regional office in Salt Lake County, ICE will have to continue sending detainees to local jails or to facilities that are far from the Wasatch Front,” he wrote, “which takes detainees away from the support of their families, friends and communities.”

CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tenn., has conducted increasing business with Wyoming’s Department of Corrections in recent years. The company runs transitional housing in Cheyenne for WDOC inmates leaving prison. As the state’s prison population swelled to bursting in recent years, CoreCivic also entered a contract with WDOC to house inmates at a private prison in Mississippi.

RFP targets Evanston?

ICE’s official request for proposals from contractors to build and run the jail was issued on July 17. It seeks bids for a contract to run a jail that would hold immigrants picked up by ICE while they await deportation proceedings from a West Valley City court. The proposed jail — ICE uses the term “detention facility” — would hold 400 males and 100 females, according to the document.

ICE hopes to award the contract in April 2020, and the facility will need to be operational “no later than 26 months after award,” according to the RFP. At its latest, therefore, Evanston could see an immigration jail built and operational on sagebrush-covered bluffs above Bear River State Park as early as August of 2022.

CoreCivic is evaluating the RFP, a spokesperson said in an email. “As part of an ongoing process, CoreCivic reviews procurements to understand the needs of governments and if we can provide a responsive solution,” spokesperson Brandon Bissell wrote. “To that end, we are conducting our diligence on this RFP and how best to respond. At this stage, it is premature for us to elaborate further out of respect for the procurement process and for competitive reasons.”

Bissell also touted the company’s management, saying CoreCivic has spent 35 years providing ICE with “safe, humane solutions that respect the dignity of those in our care.”

Debate to go on

The specter of an immigration jail in Evanston has already engendered considerable debate in both the economically struggling small town and the state at large.

In Evanston this weekend, opponents of the facility held their second annual “Fiesta de Familias” event, which drew people opposed to the prison together to celebrate families they say detention policies tear apart.

Supporters of the endeavor say jobs are hard to come by in Evanston, and that immigration detention will go on regardless of whether the community plays its part or not. Anderson, the newest county commissioner, echoed that sentiment last week. “Any decision that I make pertaining to this is not saying, ‘Hey, I agree with every facet of immigration policy,’” he said. “It’s a mess. Everybody knows it’s a mess.”

Anderson suggested building the detention center could help undocumented immigrants by getting them out of state and county correctional facilities where they share cells with “hardened criminals.”

The proposal has also sparked debate on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives over the use of the term “detention facility” to evade a state law that regulates contracts between Wyoming state entities and private prison companies. Gubernatorial candidates debated the issue last year as well, with then-candidate Gov. Mark Gordon declaring his support for local control over the project.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited for length and some Utah-focused content has been added. A full version of the original story can be viewed at WyoFile. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.