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Lawsuits & Litigation

Private Prison Operator GEO Group Sues Washington Over Immigration Detention Center Closure

— May 19, 2021

The GEO Group says that the State of Washington is trying to unconstitutionally override the federal government’s immigration enforcement powers.

The GEO Group is suing the State of Washington, claiming a new law that would shutter the private prison company’s immigration detention center in Tacoma unconstitutionally subvert federal authority.

According to The Seattle Times, the law—enacted by the Washington Legislature this past March—may interfere with a contract signed between The GEO Group and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that the closure GEO’s Tacoma facility may undermine federal immigration enforcement efforts.

“This transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within Washington’s borders is a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law, and it cannot stand,” GEO attorneys wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court in Western Washington.

The GEO Group is requesting a preliminary injunction against its contract termination, which would close down the Tacoma facility in September.

The Seattle Times notes that the Northwest ICE Processing Center—operated by The GEO Group—has been extensively criticized for mistreating undocumented immigrants. GEO-employed correctional officers have allegedly denied migrants adequate food and medical care and have used solitary confinement as punishment for petty offenses.

Prison bars. Image via MaxPixel/Public Domain.

Additionally, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has also filed his own lawsuit against GEO Group, which he accuses of flouting the state’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees $1 per day to work in the Northwest ICE Processing Center.

Ferguson has since said that he plans to defend the state’s law vigorously.

“GEO’s lawsuit is part of its scorched-earth effort to avoid any accountability from the State of Washington, even though GEO chose to do business there,” Ferguson said in a statement.

The law, adds The Associated Press, bans most types of privately-operated prisons and jails in Washington. In practice, though, it only affects The GEO Group’s Tacoma facility.

However, the law does allow existing contracts to run their course. In 2015, GEO signed an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which included an option to extend its service through March 2026.

After Washington lawmakers introduced the bill targeting private prisons in January, GEO and ICE modified their contract, removing the extension option and agreeing to continue operations until September 2025.

But it is not yet clear which contract will be used to decide the Tacoma facility’s closure: that which was signed in 2015, or the extension which was approved in January.

The Associated Press observes that district court may wait for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on a similar case, which was filed in California. Oral arguments are expected to be heard in June, when a judge will hear GEO’s case against a California law barring most private prison companies from operating facilities in the state.

However, U.S. District Judge Janis Sanmartino has mostly ruled against GEO. In October, for instance, Sanmartino found that California law does not override or circumvent federal authority when it bans the enactment or extension of certain types of contract.


Lawsuit challenges new law closing immigrant detention center in Tacoma

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