California Attorney General Rob Bonta is seeking to return to court to defend a historic state law state banning private for-profit prisons after a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled against it. Advocates said at the time that California had two options going forward: to appeal before a full panel, or appeal to the Supreme Court. The state has gone with the former choice.
“As the lead author of AB 32 in the Assembly, I’m proud to be able to now defend the law on behalf of the people of California as Attorney General,” Bonta said in a statement Wednesday. “The record is clear: For-profit, private prisons and detention facilities that treat people like commodities pose an unacceptable risk to the health and welfare of Californians.”
“In a 2-1 ruling Oct. 5, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the law’s provision banning private immigration prisons violated the U.S. government’s authority to regulate immigration,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Two of the judges were appointed by, surprise, the previous president. The third was appointed by Barack Obama. Private prison profiteer GEO Group had previously lost its challenge to the law under an October 2020 ruling from a George W. Bush-appointed judge.
Bonta’s statement said this latest legal action “urges the Ninth Circuit to reconsider a divided appellate decision by a three-judge panel reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the current challenge regarding the law’s application to private immigration detention facilities. Signed into law in 2019, AB 32 works to protect the health and welfare of people in custody within California’s borders by prohibiting private companies from operating detention facilities in the state.”
Making that point, a months-long investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a private prison company had violated the law by misusing a toxic pesticide that sickened immigrants at a private detention facility in southern California. That private prison company? GEO Group. “This report confirms what those in detention have known for far too long—that GEO doesn’t care about the health and safety of immigrants,” the Shut Down Adelanto Coalition said in a statement from Earthjustice.
“We applaud today’s filing and all legal efforts to sustain the bill’s promise—and our vision as an abolitionist coalition is not limited to what happens with this one law,” Dignity Not Detention Coalition said Wednesday. The coalition cited a major victory at the Yuba County jail, where no immigrants remain detained as a direct result of organizing efforts. Ricardo Vasquez Cruz had been detained there for more than three years. He was reunited with his family last month.
“From the beginning, AB 32 was simply one battle in a broader strategy to liberate people from detention and abolish cages,” the coalition said. “One ruling won’t be able to so quickly change that. The Dignity Not Detention coalition and our partners are fighting at the local level, to challenge the notion that folks must be incarcerated and detained, and winning against the propaganda of criminalization that is used to justify these prisons.”
More recently, private prison profiteer GEO Group was ordered to pay immigrants it detains in Washington the state’s minimum wage for their forced labor under a so-called “volunteer” work program. Detained immigrants have been forced to do everything from cooking to cleaning for only $1 a day. The court had ruled that the company owed more than $23 million in unpaid wages and damages. But rather than pay them their fair wages, GEO Group has shut down the “voluntary” program as it appeals the ruling. “The corporation wrote that it has enough money on hand ‘to pay the Judgments twenty times over,’ but said it disagreed with the decisions,” the Associated Press reported.
“AB 32 puts people over profits,” Bonta continued. “It is a law of general applicability that recognizes the federal government’s own documented concerns over these facilities. California will continue to press forward to ensure the dignity and rights of everyone in our state are protected. We respectfully ask the Ninth Circuit to let us make our case.”
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