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WA state Senate passes bill to ban private, for-profit prisons

The Washington state Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that bans private, for-profit prison companies that contract with local, state and federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, from operating in the state. 

If signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the new legislation would force the ICE detention center in Tacoma to shut down after its contract expires in 2025. The law would also prevent other private detention centers — whether criminal or civil — from opening. 

This is the second year Washington state has attempted to pass such legislation, but Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, one of the sponsors of the bill, said people’s testimonies about abuses they had suffered while detained at the ICE detention center in Tacoma made a difference. 

“I am so relieved. I am so happy and relieved that we got this through,” Oritz-Self said after the passage of the bill. “It took so painfully long to work on this.”

Ortiz-Self called the legislation a “victory for the state of Washington” and a sign that businesses in the state will be expected to uphold certain human rights. 

“It sends a message to any organization,” said Ortiz-Self.

Lawmakers say at least 22 other states have stopped detaining people in private prisons. In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that bans private prison companies from operating in that state. After the law passed, GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the country, sued California over the new law. GEO Group operates facilities across the country, including the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. 

In court, GEO Group argued the new law aimed to “undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration law.” The previous Trump administration also sued California over the new legislation. 

California, however, has largely been able to defend any legal challenges, with a federal judge in San Diego reasoning states should have the authority to ensure the health and welfare of inmates and detainees. 

Ortiz-Self said this gave states like Washington more confidence in passing a similar law.   

If the bill is signed and the private prison ban takes effect, the Washington state Attorney General’s Office has also signaled that it is ready to defend it in court if necessary. 

Asked about the new legislation, ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Matt Adams, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said a private prison ban here could create a situation where ICE might transfer some detainees to other states, separating families.

“I think the bill is very important. Does it also create certain concerns? Yes. The ideal solution would be that there is a nationwide approach to this,” Adams said. 

But Adams said the COVID-19 pandemic has already shown Washington state what low levels of immigration detention look like. Currently, Adams said, because of concerns over COVID-19 there are a record low level of detainees held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Even though it has the capacity to hold more than 1,500 individuals, there are approximately 200 detainees at the facility. 

Ultimately, the legislation, Adams said, is important because it removes “perverse incentives” and the detention of people due to profit — and not because they are a danger to society. 

Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented activist with La Resistencia who has been protesting conditions at the ICE detention center in Tacoma for years, said she was “elated” at the passage of the bill. 

“I started crying thinking of the many hunger strikers,” Villalpando said, referring to detainees in Tacoma who have refused meals as a form of protest. 

“I cried,” Villalpando said. “Then I got to work.”

UPDATE: Inslee's office released a statement regarding the legislation Tuesday afternoon.

"The governor has generally been supportive of bills to restrict private prisons in Washington and continues to have this position. Now that the Legislature has passed this measure, we will be conducting our final phase of review and will continue to provide updates as our analysis concludes."

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to