California moves to ban private prisons and I.C.E detention centers

Rest in Peace, Nebane Abienwi.

by Ella-Rose Kessler

The beginning of October was marked by the tragic death of Nebane Abienwai, a Cameroonian immigrant awaiting asylum at Otay Mesa Detention Center, a private camp in San Diego run by CoreCivic, a private contractor based in Nashville. Abienwai, who died from a brain hemorrhage, is one of eight people who have died at the hands of the federal government so far in 2019.

Abienwai’s death comes on the heels of the passage of the Assembly Bill 32 through the California legislature, which bans the creation and renewal of contracts for private prisons and private Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. On October 11th, Governor Gavin Newsom signed this bill into law.  Newsom touted his dedication to the closure of for-profit prisons throughout his campaign for governor. AB 32 was an opportunity for him to put his words into action.The legislation, sponsored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, would go into effect on January 2020. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice statistics, this legislation passes would apply to more than 2,200 people held in these private facilities.

Mohamed Shehk, media and communications director of Critical Resistance, says “the passage of this bill through the legislature reflects the momentum against the state’s reliance on imprisonment.” Critical Resistance is an Oakland-based nationwide organization dedicated to abolitionist organizing and building a movement to end the imprisonment system. The closure of private detention centers such as Otay Mesa is a huge victory for immigration activists and prison abolitionists alike working towards the common goal of dismantling the prison industrial complex.

 Sandy Valenciano, Statewide Director of   California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, says the  passage of this bill is “a groundbreaking day to demand the liberation of these folks in ICE detention centers. No folks should ever be caged.” The California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA) is a statewide organizing network of undocumented immigrant youth working towards the abolition of ICE as an extension of the prison industrial complex, which has been pushing for Newsom to sign this bill. Valenciano states “AB 32 is important not only in the state of California which has the largest undocumented population, but important across the nation. In the larger conversation of the close the camps effort, its morally right that folks not be detained in these facilities.” The enactment of this legislation presents another opportunity for mobilization, to demand the release of people detained in these private facilities.

While there may be speculation regarding unintended consequences of this bill, such as the transfer of individuals to remote facilities, Valenciano says the evidence suggests otherwise. Valenciano points to the closures of facilities in Orange County, where no one was transferred out, and Contra Costa, where very few people were transferred. “It’s an opportunity to liberate people, to have their cases reviewed and released,” says Valenciano.

As ICE continues to contract with private companies, the room for accountability shrinks, allowing profit to trump the human rights of people. The organizing efforts of folks across California have lead to this moment for a people’s victory. Mohamad Shehk of Critical Resistance reminds us, “In this period of great momentum around criminal justice issues and reform, it’s crucial to use this to challenge what lies at the root of the prison industrial complex” — namely, the state.

The closure of private prisons and detention centers is a huge victory on the road to ending the criminalization of communities of color and mass incarceration in California.