GEO Prison Controversy Centers Adelanto At Ground Zero In National Immigration Debate

By Mark Gutglueck
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center run by the GEO Group in 35,000-population Adelanto has generated more controversy in the last eleven months for that High Desert municipality than many cities twice its size normally must weather in three years. The questions raised in the matter are ones that range over much of the governmental policy spectrum. Under scrutiny has been the wisdom of the trade-offs made at City Hall to welcome the GEO Group’s operation within Adelanto’s city limits, together with the impacts the detention center is having on San Bernardino County. Noteworthy is that both the governor and legislature of the State of California have weighed in on the matter, formulating and passing a law which was aimed specifically at institutions such as GEO’s Adelanto facility. At the heart of the matter is national immigration policy and the standards of protection, punishment, discipline, fairness, humane treatment and compassion the United States is going to apply to those who think highly enough of it to want to become its residents but have not adopted the attitude of respect for its laws that the vast majority of American citizens exemplify. And what goes on within GEO’s Adelanto operation is serving not only as a window to the world on how America applies its ideals and values when faced with a challenge, but also forming a standard for what is acceptable internationally when a nation must deal with foreign criminals or at the very least foreigners who flout its laws.
While many communities shun being a host to prisons and detention facilities, as the eighth smallest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities population-wise and the sixth largest in area, Adelanto has gone out of its way to make itself into a magnet for prisons and detention facilities.
Adelanto has three substantially-sized jails & prisons.
The High Desert Detention Center at 9438 Commerce Way, which is run by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, has capacity for over 2,100 inmates, and augments the other facilities run by the Sheriff’s Department, including the West Valley Detention Center, the Central Jail in San Bernardino, the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore and a myriad of smaller holding cells and facilities that are within or proximate to the sheriff’s department’s stations and substations around the county. It is characterized as a medium-security detention center that holds inmates awaiting trial or sentencing or both. Most of the sentenced inmates are kept there for less than two years. San Bernardino County accepts inmates from surrounding towns, municipalities, the US Marshal’s Service and the Adelanto Police Department, which consists of a division of the sheriff’s department providing law enforcement services to the city under contract. The sheriff’s Adelanto headquarters does not feature its own long-term lock-up.
The Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility at 10450 Rancho Road is a moderate level security prison financed, designed, built and run by the GEO Group which houses inmates as well as parole violators for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation as well as housing offenders for the San Bernardino County Sheriff, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The Adelanto U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center at 10400 Rancho Road, owned and operated by the GEO Group, is an immigration detention center. It consists of two separate facilities: East, which since 1991 had been a state prison for adult male inmates and was purchased in June 2010 from the City of Adelanto, with a capacity of about 600 inmates; and the newly built West expansion completed in August 2012 with another 700 beds. After an additional expansion in 2015, the facility’s capacity houses up to 1,940 immigrant detainees of all classification levels, with the average inmate staying for 30 days. Since its opening as a U.S. Immigration and Customs detention center in 2011, the Adelanto Detention Facility has faced accusations of insufficient medical care and poor conditions. In July 2015, 29 members of Congress sent a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service and federal inspectors requesting an investigation addressing their concerns. In November 2015, the facility garnered further negative publicity when 400 detainees went on a hunger strike, demanding better medical and dental care.
In April 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, working pro bono, filed Hernandez v. Sessions, a class action lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the suit were non-citizens who were detained at the Adelanto Detention Facility due to their inability to afford the bond set by immigration officials. In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s order granting a classwide preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. The Hernandez decision was the first court case to impose due process requirements in the immigration context and required Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service officers and immigration judges consider a person’s financial ability to post bond and suitability for non-monetary alternative conditions of supervision when formulating inmates’ conditions of release.
In May 2018, government inspectors from the Department of Homeland Security made an unannounced tour of the detention center, finding in the process that immigrant detainees in different facilities around the center were housed under conditions that inspectors said constituted multiple violations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service detention standards, which posed significant health and safety risks for detainees and restricted detainees’ rights. The violations found included nooses in detainee cells, inappropriate segregation including misuse of solitary confinement, improperly handcuffed and shackled inmates, and detainees with limited English not being provided with communication assistance; and both belated and inadequate detainee medical care.
In this way, the Adelanto Detention Facility had come to embody the convulsive debate and controversy that was raging, and continues to rage, throughout the United States. Many believe the hemorrhaging of undocumented and illegal immigrants into the United States represents a dire threat to the culture, status and security of the nation. For them, the security of the borders is paramount to prevent an influx of humanity among whom there could be secreted those with ill-intent toward the United States, its way of life and its people, including those harboring weapons of mass destruction or carrying diseases capable of untold devastation. Others see a less dramatic threat, a subtler one with nevertheless far-reaching and pervasive consequence, as an overwhelming number of the masses migrating to the United States bring with them little in the way of marketable skills, sophistication, training or ability to assimilate into American society as productive and self-sufficient participants in the country’s economic life in the near or even middle term, thus becoming an overpowering burden upon the social welfare system intended for the country’s indigenous indigent population, which carries with it the consequence of rendering the social safety net too porous for the native dispossessed, and leaving the productive members of the society who are defraying the cost of those benefits to the poor unwilling to sustain those social welfare programs. Another objection to an unchecked flow of foreigners into the country whose identities and backgrounds are unknown is that among those might be lurking a criminal element whose propensity for thievery and violence and disregard for others will create a danger to the American community at large.
Still, there are others who believe the wealth of America to be so great and its potential for accommodation so enormous and the generosity of its inhabitants so immense that all who manage to make it onto American soil should be welcomed with good will, recognized for their spirit and determination in making their potentially perilous sojourn and assisted in their efforts to partake in the commonwealth and bounty of the United States and all of its constituent entities. These immigrants should be extended the courtesy of admission, and their status as the new blood that replenishes the pioneer spirit that manifested in the destiny of America spanning the continent celebrated by their assimilation into the teeming masses yearning for freedom, their advocates propound.
In recent years, the line dividing these two factions has hardened, with the Republican Party representing the former attitude and the Democrats embodying the approach of the latter. With the Republicans since 2016 in ascendancy at the national level and the Democrats dominating California politics, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service under Republican President Donald Trump has enlarged upon the policy of former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, of aggressively incarcerating those caught making illegal entry into the United States, including separating parents from their children. California’s governor and legislature along with the political leadership of many of the Golden State’s cities, in assuming a position obverse to the Republicans their partisan Democratic identification involves, have openly opposed and defied the policy of the federal government, including many of the state’s cities declaring themselves sanctuaries from the enforcement of federal immigration law.
Last year, the California Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom intensified the cultural, legal and philosophical battle over immigration policy when the legislature in October 2019 passed and Newsom signed Assembly Bill 32, which phased out private prisons and detention centers, effective on January 1, 2020.
In addition to its immigrant detention center and the 750-inmate capacity Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, GEO operates five other private prisons in California, which includes the 700-inmate capacity Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility in McFarland, the 700-inmate capacity Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility in McFarland, the 400-bed Mesa Verde Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Bakersfield and two detention facilities for the U.S. Marshals Service, those being the 725-inmate capacity Western Regional Detention Facility in San Diego and the 512-bed El Centro Service Processing Center in El Centro.
In a ploy to overcome the Assembly Bill 32 restriction, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO, in December before Assembly Bill 32 became law, entered into a 15-year contract to expand the Adelanto ICE Processing Center from 1,940 beds to 2,690 beds, essentially on the basis of folding the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility into the processing center. Additionally, GEO joined with the U.S. Department of Justice in suing the State of California, Newsom and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, contesting the legality and constitutionality of Assembly Bill 32, and asserting it improperly intrudes upon federal prerogatives and the legitimate function of the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
California’s political establishment, including Newsom, Becerra and Democratic members of California’s congressional delegation, decried the manner in which federal officials were entering into deliberately-drafted last-minute contractual arrangements with California-based providers of private detention services to “evade” the law. Thereafter, protests by groups militating and advocating on behalf of immigrants reached a crescendo.
The matter relating to the Adelanto Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center put the Adelanto community at the forefront, the epicenter and ground zero of the bitter national debate over immigration policy.
On February 19, 2020, the Adelanto Planning Commission on a 4-to-1 vote, with Commissioner JayShawn Johnson dissenting, approved GEO making the expansion. Immigrant rights organizations, including the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice appealed that decision, placing the authority over the ultimate fate of the plan by the federal government to hold ever larger numbers of those detained for having come into the country illegally and attempting to live undocumented among both the native, naturalized and legally documented populations into the hands of the city council. The removal of the decision into the province of the city council presented a dilemma. Councilman Ed Camargo for years has steered clear of any issues relating to GEO because his girlfriend/fiancée, Regina Duran, is employed by GEO. Mayor Gabriel Reyes, whose commitment to economic development and the creation and maintenance of financial activity within the city outruns his sensitivity to and willingness to comply with the wishes of those protesting against the private prison on the basis of social causes such as that relating to the federal government’s treatment of immigrants, placed him on GEO’s side of the issue. To Reyes, GEO’s status as the city’s major employer and a provider of more than $960,000 in mitigation payments and administrative fees to City Hall was reason enough to be positively receptive to GEO’s expansion plans. By allowing the expansion to proceed, Reyes calculated some 150 GEO employees who stood to lose their jobs with the closure of the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility would remain employed in Adelanto along with the 450 workers employed at the Adelanto Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center. Reyes was backed in his support of GEO by Councilwoman Joy Jeannette.
Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans, who is active in Democratic political circles including the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, and Councilman Gerardo Hernandez not only found the position taken by those advocating liberal immigration policies persuasive, but were among those making a case against the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thus, when the council after seven months and twice delaying a vote on the matter took up the appeal of the planning commission’s February approval of GEO’s expansion plans for the Adelanto Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in September, it found itself in a 2-to-2 deadlock on the question. That tie vote took place in the wee hours of Thursday morning, September 10, at the conclusion of a meeting held by means of a teleconference, owing to the danger of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, and which began on Wednesday, September 9. Some 91 members of the public weighed in on the matter through a queue of phone calls to the number 1-415-655-0001, with the lion’s share seeking to persuade the council to block GEO’s expansion plans. Some of those calling in were identified by name if they chose to give it and some were identified only by a numbered designation.
When the council’s members got around to voting on the matter sometime shortly after 3 a.m. on September 10, they were unable to come to a consensus. They approached the vote from different angles. Mayor Gabriel Reyes and Councilwoman Joy Jeannette put forth a motion to deny the appeal and allow the expansion. That course failed, with Hernandez and Evans evening the score with two votes against it. Camargo did not participate in the matter, having recused himself from taking part in the decision.
Equally futilely, Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans and Councilman Gerardo Hernandez floated a motion to uphold the appeal and deny GEO’s expansion plan. That failed 2-to-2.
Based upon the planning commission’s approval of the expansion proposal involving the conversion of the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility into an augmenting wing to the Adelanto Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center, City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen said the planning commission’s February vote remains intact, such that GEO is now eligible to proceed with the expansion. GEO and Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which had been limiting the number of inmates being located into the Adelanto facility to the point that it was at that time functioning at well under 50 percent capacity, considered the city council’s tie vote to be a godsend. Both the federal government and GEO were on the brink of loading the detention facility full of prisoners in light of their inability to get clearance to add 1,400 beds to GEO’s immigrant holding facility in the community of McFarland in Central California earlier this year.
Miffed at their inability to prevent the Adelanto facility expansion from taking place, the forces arrayed against GEO and the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement redoubled their efforts. At one point, attorney Grisel Ruiz with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center propounded the novel theory that the tie vote by the council on the appeal nullified the planning commission’s original vote, which ran contrary to custom, law, tradition and precedent, which holds that unless an appealed decision is clearly overturned, it remains in place. Ruiz’s gambit failed.
Nevertheless, an act of nature intervened, thwarting, at least for the time being, the federal government’s aggressive illegal immigrant round-up tactics and the lucrative arrangement GEO has for facilitating it.
As the events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six detainees at the Adelanto facility with medical conditions due to inadequate sanitation and beds placed too close together. These conditions provided an “ideal incubation” opportunity for the coronavirus to spread according to the lawsuit. That suit made its way into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. Hatter, in reaction to some of the American Civil Liberties Union’s assertions, ruled that action needed to be taken to alleviate conditions at the center, including increasing the spacing between bunk beds which were less than three feet distant from one another; communal eating arrangements in which a half dozen to ten people were eating at the same table; detainees sharing sinks, toilets, counters and showers without the surfaces with which the inmates came into contact being disinfected between uses; housing four to eight people in a single cell; and showers placed less than six feet apart. The government, citing logistical issues and negative tests for the coronavirus among inmates, sought delays in implementing those suggested measures, and the lawsuit appeared to be languishing. But earlier this month, less than a month after the Adelanto City Council’s tie vote on the expansion appeal, data became available to show that 148 or 19.17 percent of the 772 inmates at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. A comparison with the COVID-19 infection rates within 368 detention facilities holding undocumented immigrants in the United States indicated the Adelanto facility had the highest percentage of COVID-19 among the inmates in such facilities. In addition, 31 of the facility’s staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 at that point. That fact, augmenting information that had already been brought to the court’s attention, was provided to Judge Hatter.
After evaluating the data and hearing the response of attorneys representing the federal government, GEO and the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Hatter on October 15 issued a 15-page order that the number of inmates in GEO’s Adelanto facility be reduced from 772 to 475, and that the cuts in the inmate population take place at a rate of at least 50 prisoners per day beginning Monday, October 19.
In making his ruling, Hatter scored the lawyers for the federal government and the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for what he said was dissembling on their part in the response to the American Civil Liberties Union’s claims and the available data generated by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hatter said he has “been concerned for some time with the lack of candor exhibited by the government and its counsel in this case. Now, the court is concerned with straight up dishonesty on the part of the government’s counsel. The court has started to re-assess the information the government has provided it in this case, as well as the arguments the government has made. The court is concerned that the facts and arguments that it previously perceived to be merely inaccurate or ambiguous might have been, actually, dishonest or, at best, disingenuous.”
Hatter said he is troubled by the entire circumstance at the detention facility, and he feared for “human lives whose reasonable safety is entitled to be enforced and protected by the court pursuant to the United States Constitution.”
In accordance with Judge Hatter’s order, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released close to 300 inmates from the Adelanto facility to meet the goal of reducing the prison’s population to 475 inmates. Nevertheless, federal officials maintain, that action is not without risk to the public.
“Due to an order from the Central District of California, and despite requests to transfer detainees to alternative locations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has complied with the mandated reduction to the overall detainee population at the Adelanto ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Processing Center in Adelanto, California, which has resulted in the release of dangerous criminal aliens into various communities,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Alexx Pons said in a prepared statement
Pursuant to the court order, GEO “released more than 250 criminal aliens back into communities – a decision the agency continues to warn could lead to unnecessary victimization by recidivist criminals,” Pons said. “The forced reduction is now complete and the current population at the facility is approximately 465.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acting director, Tony H. Pham, said, “While opponents who continuously seek to discredit the agency might otherwise mislead the public to believe that those in detention pose no risk to public safety, nothing could be further from the truth. ICE has complied with this overreaching court order; however, the public should know that the ruling undoubtedly places them at greater risk.”
Pons said the actual number of inmates in the Adelanto facility last month hovered around 730 rather than the 772 alleged by the American Civil Liberties Union in court papers.
Prior to the reduction, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s enforcement and removal operations division in Los Angeles assessed that among the roughly 730 aliens detained at Adelanto, more than 85 percent had pending criminal charges and/or convictions. “Among those ordered released, more than 60 had final orders of removal by federal immigration judges,” Pons stated. “The criminal histories of those released included, but was not limited to: assault with a deadly weapon, battery, child cruelty, contempt/violating a protected order, domestic violence, disorderly conduct, driving without a license, driving under the influence, false imprisonment, fraud, hit and run, grand theft, obstructing a police officer, possession of a controlled substance, prostitution, sexual offenses (including lewd/lascivious acts with a child), weapons violations, and the federal offense of illegal reentry after removal.”
In complying with Judge Hatter’s order, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has imposed on those released various alternatives to detention, which include in some cases electronic monitors affixed to their ankles or strict reporting guidelines by which those released must make contact with federal officials at regular intervals.
“Safety has consistently remained a top priority for the agency,” Pons stated. “As such, ICE has imposed strict reporting requirements for those being placed on alternatives to detention. As an added precautionary measure for communities, no detainee was released until officials established a high degree of certainty that they did not pose a COVID-19 public health risk.”
“ICE has been placed in a difficult circumstance to comply with a binding order that completely contradicts our duty to this nation,” Pham said. “These criminal aliens have serious convictions and charges – releasing them is an extremely risky gamble to take with public safety.”
Reports that the prisoners at the Adelanto facility were abused are inaccurate, Pons insisted. “ICE has adhered, and continues to adhere, to an aggressive inspections program for its detention centers,” Pons said. “ICE ensures its facilities follow ICE’s enforcement and removal operations division’s National Detention Standards, while the enforcement and removal operations division’s detention standards compliance unit ensures that detainees in custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments.”
Pons said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been mindful all along of the hazards presented by the COVID-19 situation, and has acted responsibly in safeguarding the inmates at the Adelanto facility.
“Adelanto has restricted intakes and transfers to further protect those in custody,” Pons said. “COVID-19 testing and results at the facility remain ongoing; these are reported on a rolling basis with online information recorded from a live database. Data may change as the agency receives updated case information. Since the onset of the pandemic, ICE has taken proactive measures to tailor conditions across its detention network to maintain safe and secure environments for detainees and staff, while adhering to guidelines for the prevention and control of infectious and communicable diseases from the Center for Disease Control. This has included reducing the overall detained population, providing appropriate personal protective equipment to all staff and detainees, suspending social visitation, and maximizing social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times.”

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