SAN DIEGO —Today, civil rights attorneys filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service seeking details on their contract with The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) – a Florida-based private prison company that operates the 770-bed Western Region Detention Facility (WRDF) in San Diego.
Plaintiffs, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, are represented by the Ballard Spahr law firm and the ACLU of the District of Columbia.
As part of President Biden’s effort to reduce mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color, one of his first official acts was to issue an executive order forbidding the Department of Justice’s renewal of contracts with private companies to run federal detention facilities.
GEO’s contract to run WRDF was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2021. However, despite the executive order, GEO received a six-month extension of its contract. Meanwhile, the company has schemed to keep its operations and profits by suggesting the U.S. Marshals Service enter into an agreement with the City of McFarland, a small town more than 250 miles north of San Diego, to operate the facility. McFarland would then subcontract the operations to GEO. This would allow GEO to continue operating WRDF without interruption and the city would earn $500,000 through the agreement.
On Sept. 21, 2021, the ACLUF-SDIC, ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and ACLU Foundation of Northern California sent a letter to Biden administration officials informing them of GEO’s efforts to thwart the executive order. The letter also detailed allegations of persistent abuse committed at WRDF and other facilities run by GEO.
“Our communities have a right to know about and challenge efforts to further mass incarceration,” said Summer Lacey, criminal justice director at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “This litigation is a demand for the transparency necessary to collectively push for transformative change.”
The ACLU submitted FOIA requests on Oct. 25, 2021 and Jan. 7, 2022, seeking documents related to the contract extension, which ends on March 31, 2022; any renewal considerations being made; and any communications between the Marshals Service, the Department of Justice, GEO, and the City of McFarland. The Marshals Service has provided no information in response to these requests.
“We are pleased and proud to work with the ACLU to vindicate the public’s right to know what their government is doing in connection with this important issue,” said Matthew E. Kelley, one of the team of Ballad Spahr attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
This is not the first time GEO has turned to McFarland. As the California State Auditor found, GEO also used McFarland and the City of Adelanto to circumvent procurement law in the context of immigration detention. GEO used similar pass-through contracts with MacFarland to operate a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Bakersfield.
"The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to enable the people to know what their government is up to so that people may hold their government accountable," said Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU of the District of Columbia. "The public have a right to know whether the City of McFarland and GEO are trying to evade President Biden’s Executive Order, and whether the U.S. Marshals Service knows about that scheme and is complicit in it."
If the contract for WRDF is allowed to continue, the GEO-McFarland arrangement would not only likely violate the president’s executive order, it would allow a private prison company to again recruit a cash-strapped municipality to exert influence over incarceration policies in a far-off city, where the incarceration and its community impacts would actually occur.
“Based on the repeated allegations of abuse at Western Region and elsewhere by GEO, we continue to urge the administration to stand by its promises and end the contract with GEO by March 2022,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC. “The public, and especially San Diegans, have a right to know what the administration intends to do.”
The letter to the Biden administration is here.