The Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

Last week, for the third time in a year, union employees at a San Diego prison began receiving layoff notices. They work for the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego, a 770-bed, medium security prison that is operated on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service.

In recent months, the WRDF, as it is known, has become a flash point for the issue of private prisons. Unsubstantiated allegations of unsafe prisoner conditions, and false accusations against the staff are just the latest weapons those intent on eliminating private prisons are using to meet their political ends, regardless of the substantial negative impact it would have on Southern California communities.

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After President Biden issued an executive order in early 2021 to discontinue some federal contracts with private prison companies, workers at WRDF received their first layoff notice. Six months later, they got a second.

WRDF was granted a reprieve from closure in both instances in large part because there is no publicly operated detention facility nearby that can house those detained there, and the alternative plan — busing detainees from the high desert north of Los Angeles to and from San Diego where they will be prevented from seeing their families and legal counsel — has come under heavy fire for trampling fundamental due process rights. Even with no viable option other than WRDF, closing the facility is back on the table, along with untruths about how the facility operates.

The facility brings $30 million in direct economic activity to San Diego every year and is one of the region’s highest-paying employers — paying over $8 per hour more than the average local wage. Of the 254-member workforce, 229 are underrepresented minorities. A closure would be economically devastating to these workers, their families, and communities throughout the region.

As the head of the union representing the majority of WRDF workers, I sent a letter to President Biden alerting him that shuttering the facility would create a significant adverse impact on public safety in the region. That position was acknowledged in a memo written by the Biden Administration’s own U.S. Marshals Service. It is also the same warning issued by former San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore last year.

Opponents of private prisons have falsely asserted that privately operated facilities are endangering the lives of inmates, forcing them to live in squalid conditions and serving them inedible food. As far as WRDF is concerned, those claims are simply not grounded in fact. In reality, the facility has an outstanding record on safety audits, and the biggest complaint about the food is that because of the high quality, inmates want more of it. 

These inaccurate criticisms are designed to arouse anger in pursuit of a political goal. I extend an open invitation to any public official — before you misjudge WRDF or its dedicated workers — to visit the facility for yourself. I did, and it changed my view on the debate about privately operated detention centers, particularly in Southern California.

The fact is, WRDF is essential to the criminal justice system in Southern California. For decades, insufficient investment in public prisons has led to a corresponding shortage of publicly operated facilities to safely detain those awaiting trial.

In Southern California, publicly operated detention space is already operating at or close to capacity. Furthermore, the U.S. Marshals Service is not permitted under the law to operate its own facilities, so it must rely on partners to help carry out its mission.

In truth, there is nothing controversial about WRDF or its staff, despite the baseless allegations coming from its overzealous opponents. These workers and the people of Southern California deserve better. It’s time to lay off the phony attacks and acknowledge the critical and overwhelmingly positive role WRDF plays in the community.

Randy Erwin is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union representing the workers at the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego.