EVANSTON — The Portland Rose Room at the Roundhouse was filled to capacity — 260 people, plus others standing in doorways and outside the room — for a special three-hour Uinta County Commission meeting at which CoreCivic, a private prison company that hopes to build and operate an immigration detention center in Evanston, presented its plans.
The public meeting was held for the purposes of hearing CoreCivic describe its proposed facility and for receiving public questions and comments.
Commissioner Eric South welcomed everyone to the meeting and turned it over to Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas, who served as moderator to keep the meeting moving smoothly and to make sure everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak.
Howieson-Kallas began by establishing the ground rules for public participation. Each person would be given time to ask relevant questions during CoreCivic’s presentation and personal comments were held until the end of the presentation. During personal comments, each person was limited to a three-minute time limit and Uinta County residents were given preference to speak before out-of-towners.
Seven individuals with CoreCivic and its partners then introduced themselves and each gave a brief synopsis of their job description and title with the company.
As their slide presentation was displayed on the large screen, the CoreCivic representatives took turns explaining and adding information. CoreCivic originally was named Diversified Government Solutions Corporation and was founded in 1983 in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2016, it became CoreCivic and the company currently employs 14,000 people with facilities in 22 states.
CoreCivic claims to be the largest real estate holder for the federal government in the U.S. The company has three main business lines: residential reentry centers, real estate and prisons, which range in size from 2,000 to 500,000 square feet. Its focus is on safety for all and community involvement. The representatives at the public meeting each stated many times throughout the evening that he or she is proud of what they provide.
CoreCivic Executive Vice President of Real Estate Lucibeth Mayberry said they are in the first official step in the process. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) accepts the independent environmental impact study, they have 30 days to submit the next volume of proposal. Mayberry said it is a long process and they have a long way to go before building.
Eric Cohen of Butler & Cohen, a design and building firm in Houston, provided slides of the proposed detention center, to be located adjacent to Bear River State Park. The 300,000-square-foot single-level facility will be approximately 3,000 feet away from Interstate 80 and will be visible to those coming from the east. Officials said the facility will have multiple layers of fencing with razor wire, and 18-foot-high walls.
The RFP states that once ICE awards the project to a company, it will have 26 months to complete the project and have it up and running.
The slides demonstrated what the center would look like both during the day and at night with all the lights on. One slide showed the interior of the building. Cohen pointed out the pods that will hold 40 beds each and the women’s section that will be separated from the men’s section by a wall.
The facility would hold a total of 1,000 detainees. He said there will be a huge area for ICE administration, medical facilities, a gym, commissary, classrooms, library, courtroom, visiting area and more.
Cohen said the cost of construction for this detention center will be $130-150 million, which CoreCivic is responsible for. The company may work with Municipal Capital Markets Group (MCM) to finance the project.
“There will be 260 positions available at the detention center,” Mayberry said, “and we always recruit some locally. Fifty to 60 of those positions will be ICE administration. Entry-level detention officers will earn $26 per hour and will have ample opportunity for advancement. Any positions that we bring in from out of town will be management positions. Also, we are military friendly and actively recruit veterans.”
When questioned about hiring practices and just how many positions will be local recruits, the response was that they are governed by federal guidelines for hiring and that employees would be vetted through ICE. Jeb Beasley, with CoreCivic’s federal partnership relations team, said they foresee that 85-90% of employees will be local. They will hold job fairs to see what the labor market will be. When asked how many of those employees would be detention officers they guessed that maybe 65% would be, but said they didn’t have those figures readily available.
Other questions had to do with the impact on public services in the community and on infrastructure. Two residents, Terri Denhof and Meryl Thompson, called attention to the sewer and water system in the city, suggesting that it was outdated and could be a problem. CoreCivic representatives all said that they have discussed that with city and county officials and they have not relayed any serious concerns but if it did come up then they would have to work a solution into their proposal. They stated that they have set in place contingency plans for almost any emergency situation that might arise.
Eric Mander’s questions centered on the worth of the 60 acres of property, its assessed value and who would be paying taxes on it, if they couldn’t maintain a minimum number of detainees how that would affect their ability to pay their taxes; and why the facility will have barbed-wire fences when the detainees have no weapons and aren’t criminals? Cohen responded by saying they must abide by industry standards to “number one keep people out and number two keep people in.”
Many questions seemed to focus on the location that is very near to the State Park visitor’s center and hiking trails. Those questions were addressed by referring to the environmental impact study which CoreCivic officials said they have not seen yet.
Bear River resident Lance Norris asked about the national political scene and what might happen if immigration policy shifts away from detaining undocumented immigrants.
“In the event that that might happen, what does CoreCivic do — I know you said you’ve never lost a contract — but what would an exit strategy look like for CoreCivic in the event that there’s a drastic change in immigration policy?” Norris asked.
Mayberry touted the company’s history, saying, “First of all, we’re proud of our track record with all administrations. … The need for beds has been constant.” She said ICE doesn’t have its own facilities to house detainees, so the federal government relies on jails and private housing — such as those run by CoreCivic — to hold detainees.
Norris asked whether, if there are open beds at the proposed Evanston facility, CoreCivic transfer detainees from elsewhere to keep the detention center full. Tim Aitken, of CoreCivic’s federal partnership relations team, said yes, that would certainly be the case. He said that’s the nature of ICE operations — they will transport detainees wherever there are open beds.
Commissioner Mark Anderson clarified that those transferred would be from ICE, not from local jails or the state prison. He said if that were to happen, changes would need to be made.
“Let’s say that if CoreCivic wanted to take state inmates from overflow, overspill from California or wherever,” Anderson said. “That would distinguish this facility as no longer a detention center and now it would be a prison. So there would be some drastic steps that would have to take place for something like that to happen. That would involve a planning and zoning hearing and meetings. That would involve the big five in the state, including the governor, to sign off on it. … This does not open the door for a hardened criminal population.”
Another question centered on the fact that the Wyoming State Hospital and the Evanston Regional Hospital cannot hire or keep enough staff so where would CoreCivic’s staff come from? Their response was that they may have to bring in staff from other facilities and it is their obligation to staff the facility and that once the center is established in Evanston, they think people will move to Evanston for the jobs.
Someone expressed concern about no or little affordable housing and wondered where CoreCivic would house people. They responded by saying they would pay to temporarily place people in hotels or short-term housing and that they work with rental businesses frequently.
When it came time for people to voice their concerns, those in favor of the detention center coming to Uinta County were fairly equal to the number of voices speaking against it. Concerns included the size of the beds detainees would sleep on, allegations of CoreCivic’s abuses and deaths in its facilities, understaffing, only one access road to the facility, bright lights that might be seen from town, fire suppression, water and sewer overload and concern that the facility could be turned into a prison if ICE leaves.
Britt Sloan of Evanston said he’s gone back and forth on the proposed detention center.
“As a bank manager, I have employees from different walks of life,” Sloan said. “That’s where I found myself on supporting the concept of jobs. … [but] there’s a strong sense, specifically in the Hispanic community … that the presence of ICE agents here will somehow dramatically increase the chances of certain family members being captured and deported. … Does their presence somehow suddenly put somebody at risk?”
Aitken said if someone were to be arrested, he or she might end up at the facility, but “just because there is a detention center here … they’re not going to have people combing the streets of Evanston.”
Dr. Catherine DuPree, formerly of Salt Lake City and a new resident to Uinta County, said CoreCivic looks like a warehouse “and you are warehousing people. Do you really think doctors will want to work there?”
Several in favor of the CoreCivic detention center thanked CoreCivic for coming and said that a WyoSayYes group had been formed on Facebook with about 700 members at the time. Kent Anderson, speaking as an administrator for the page, said Uinta County is worse off economically than any other county in the state and a new opportunity for jobs will benefit the community.
Jon Pentz said, “I will be the first to apply for a job and I thank you. There is more local support for you than is being reported.”
Evanston attorney Tim Beppler was last to express his concerns about the facility, “I have been a resident of Evanston for 32 years and was always proud of that; I am less proud now. We were led to believe that the commissioners would be selling the property to CoreCivic tomorrow. Is the contract with them and CoreCivic and ICE? What is the structure?”
CoreCivic said they don’t have the RFP or the environmental study yet.
Howieson-Kallas then announced that a sale would not take place on Tuesday and that they were not at that point in the process yet.
CoreCivic Managing Director of Communications Steve Owens said in an email to the Herald Thursday that Monday’s meeting was typical for the company, including fielding questions and addressing concerns from those opposed to the project.
“Because immigration is such a polarizing issue in our country right now, there is regrettably a lot of misinformation about our company and industry, and the limited but valuable role we play in helping the federal government fulfill its mission,” Owens said. “This meeting afforded us the opportunity to dispel some of that misinformation while providing useful facts and context. From our perspective, there were many thoughtful questions and comments raised at the meeting. That, combined with the strong attendance, speaks very highly of the Uinta County community and the fact that people genuinely care and want to learn as much as they can to make informed decisions about where they stand on this proposed project.
“It is normal to hear from both proponents and opponents, and again, we thought there were many thoughtful questions and comments shared Monday night from both viewpoints,” Owens continued. “Our goal was — and continues to be — to help ensure the community has the facts so that local officials and residents can make informed decisions and opinions. We were very appreciative of the many individuals who stayed around after the meeting to thank us for our presentation and willingness to answer their questions. The majority of people we heard from — both in the meeting and afterwards — indicated support or at least openness to the idea of bringing this project and the meaningful jobs to the community. That said, we respect the viewpoints of others who did not indicate support, and appreciate that, for the most part, they expressed their opposition respectfully and provided us the opportunity to respond to their concerns.”