By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Evanston, Wyoming — Immigrations and Customs Enforcement doubled the size of an immigration facility proposed for outside Evanston in an amended federal document last week, changing the upper limit on the number of beds from 500 to 1,000.
Since the proposal first emerged in June 2017, the facility — which ICE hopes to use to detain undocumented immigrants as they await immigration court proceedings in Salt Lake City — has been touted as a 500-bed facility. However, an official with the prison company Management Training Corporation, which originally brought the proposal to Evanston and largely drove the process before abruptly withdrawing, told WyoFile in October 2017 the facility would have the potential to expand to 1,000 beds.
The original Request for Proposals issued by ICE on July 17, 2019, sought proposals for facilities with 250-500 beds. Now, the proposal seeks a facility with “up to 1,000” beds, according to a version published online on Oct. 3.
Uinta County Commissioners, who have strongly backed an immigration jail in their county and been accused by opponents of lacking transparency, were not briefed on why the change to the RFP occurred, said commissioner Craig Welling in a brief phone interview on Monday. The change did not impact his positive view of the project, he said.
A spokesperson for CoreCivic, the prison company that has replaced MTC as the project proponent, directed WyoFile to ICE for comment on the change. A spokesperson for ICE was unable to comment on the contracting process, she said. A request for further inquiry and comment went unanswered by press time.
When the facility first surfaced, wrote advocacy group WyoSayNo organizer Antonio Serrano, it “was sold as a way to bring jobs to the area and diversity the economy. Very little was said about the lives that would be held inside. Now, two years later, the size of ICE’s proposed immigration prison has doubled to a facility that could hold 1,000 people.”
While Uinta County and Wyoming barrel towards opening an immigration jail, Serrano wrote, other states are going in the opposite direction. “We can’t help but think that the increased size of the proposed immigration prison is related to the recent bans of private prisons in states like California and Illinois,” Serrano wrote. “We need a nation-wide ban on new immigration prison construction so these facilities are not simply pushed into rural communities.”
Serrano again called for more transparency from local officials. “Despite the public opposition to the proposed immigration prison,” he wrote, “Uinta County officials have been working hard to ensure it gets built – no matter what the size – while neglecting to inform the community about what exactly they have been doing.”
New prison company steps in
On Aug. 9, shortly after that Management Training Corporation appears to have withdrawn its interest in the project, the federal agency put the contracting process on hold.
More than a month later, on Sept. 27, the agency increased the number of beds it was asking for, according to dates documented on the federal contracting website fedbizopps.gov. But the RFP remained on hold until it was republished on Oct. 2.
ICE also extended the deadline for submitting proposals to Nov. 30. The previous deadline was Sept. 13.
As ICE was recalibrating the contracting process, private prison company CoreCivic was courting Evanston and Uinta County officials, interviews and documents show.
Management Training Corporation walked away from the jail idea sometime in late July, informing county commissioners that it was not going to submit a proposal in response to ICE’s request, according to communications first provided to WyoFile by the group WyoSayNo, which opposes the jail. The commissioners did not inform the public of the company’s withdrawal, choosing not to issue a press release after Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson advised them against it.
An MTC spokesperson told WyoFile in an email the company was backing off to focus instead on other aspects of its business. Emails with Uinta County Commissioners, obtained by WyoFile through a records request, show the company also faced protests over immigration detainment, including one incident on July 12 when protesters chained themselves to doors and each other to block entrance to the company’s corporate office in Centerville, Utah. The company’s immigrant detention business was never politically popular in the Salt Lake City area, which helped prompt it to eye neighboring Wyoming.
On Aug. 16, Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson told WyoFile that local officials would be traveling to California to inspect some of CoreCivic’s facilities. Officials made a similar trip to view MTC immigration jails earlier in the process.
The three county commissioners, Howieson and Uinta County Clerk Amanda Hutchinson made that trip Aug. 21-22, according to copies of the airline tickets obtained through a records request. They were joined by Gary Welling, head of the Uinta County Planning and Development Office. The email shows the trip was planned at least as early as Aug. 9, weeks before the public learned one company had withdrawn its support and that commissioners were communicating with a new company.
Residents first learned that MTC had withdrawn its support at a WyoSayNo rally on Aug. 18. The public first learned of CoreCivic’s interest and the county’s trip to California when WyoFile published the information on Aug. 19. Commissioners intended to visit CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Center facility outside San Diego, Anderson said at the time. In an email, Hutchinson confirmed the officials visited that facility.
The flights to San Diego cost $1,607 in total. Local government footed the bill for that trip. The county paid for the cost of the commissioners’ and county officials’ travel and the city paid for its officials, Hutchinson said.
Since their trip, CoreCivic’s fortunes took a dramatic downturn in California. On Sept. 11, that state’s legislature voted to ban for-profit prisons from operating in the state, including ICE detention centers. The bill still awaited California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature as of Monday.
It is the understanding of county commissioners, and suggested by the RFP, that the jail would hold undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE in the region, as opposed to those detained seeking asylum the border.
“Historically, the Salt Lake City … detained population is mainly criminal alien,” the RFP reads. The “criminal alien” designation largely applies to people arrested within the United States, according to ICE’s website.
Despite the delay in the proposal submission deadline, ICE still 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.