Western Region Detention Facility
View of the Western Region Detention Facility along Front and C Street in Downtown San Diego on Friday, February 12, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

Last year, President Joe Biden acknowledged what had been evident for years: Our nation’s reliance on mass incarceration “imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer,” according to the president’s Executive Order 14006 signed just days after he took office.

In the order, the president pledged to “decrease incarceration levels” by reducing “profit-based incentives to incarcerate.” To help achieve its goals, the administration ordered the U.S. Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prison companies.

Although the order represented a hopeful moment, its promise remains unfulfilled.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which is part of the Department of Justice, continues to operate a vastshadowy network of jails, imprisoning more than 60,000 presumptively innocent people daily, who are charged with, but not convicted of, federal crimes.

The Marshals Service also imprisons countless crime victims against their will as material witnesses.

More than 8,000 of its prisoners are held in for-profit jails, including 2,000 locally in the Western RegionOtay MesaEl Centro and San Luis Regional detention facilities.

The Marshals’ contract with the billion-dollar prison company GEO Group to operate the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2021, but has been inexplicably extended twice since the executive order was issued. Its contracts with El Centro and Otay Mesa facilities, which were set to expire in December, were also extended. The current contract extension with Western Region is set to expire on June 30.

With a $50 million annual price tag, the extensions pump more taxpayer money into GEO’s bloated coffers.

However, the financial costs pale in comparison to the human costs.

As the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties has detailed, firsthand accounts reveal systemic suffering inside the Western Region Detention Facility, including failures in medical care, mistreatment of people with disabilities, and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the “decrepit” facility, constructed in 1957, people reported water “shut off for days at a time,” nonfunctioning toilets and showers, and sewage “leaking from drains.” This routine degradation doesn’t even account for extreme cases, including deathsexual abuse, and the facility’s role in the federal government’s disgraceful  family separation policy.

The societal cost of mass incarceration is compounded because our system disproportionately ensnares poor people and people of color. Black and Latino people are more likely to be jailed with no bail or significantly higher bail than white people.

Prosecutors routinely ask for high bonds knowing defendants cannot meet them, relegating people to custody simply because they cannot afford to pay. Pre-trial incarceration also creates pressure to accept plea bargains, which translates to harsher sentences, perpetuating mass incarceration and racial disparities in the system.

The recent arguments against closing Western Region have focused on saving the jobs of GEO’s guards, but a handful of jobs should not be a pretext for extending injustices and suffering. And it is questionable whether the facility creates a net job gain for our community when pre-trial confinement also costs countless jobs.

Rather than subsidize private prison corporations, we must invest in community-based alternatives to detention, which achieve the goals of incarceration without the harsh impacts. And prosecutors must stop feverishly fighting pre-trial release at all costs, especially considering 90 percent of incarcerated federal defendants are not charged with violent offenses, and those who are released return to court 99% of the time.

Documents uncovered in our litigation under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that in contemplating Western Region’s closure, the Marshals Service has never considered these alternatives or suggested them to prosecutors. Instead, they reveal an agency recruiting GEO to undermine the president’s executive order and consumed by trying to simply move Western Region’s population elsewhere. The goal of the president’s executive order is to reduce incarceration, not reshuffle it.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated “[i]n our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” But we have abandoned that core value for a carceral system premised on blaming social problems on individuals, a criminal system that targets poor people and communities of color, and government officials who prioritize those systems above all else.

The president’s executive order expresses his administration’s goal of reducing incarceration, but the government officials and prison corporations most invested in our carceral system have actively undermined that goal and rendered the order meaningless in our region. Our government must ensure that, come June 30, they are not successful again.

Bardis Vakili is the interim legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.