If it looks like a prison...


I have deep roots in Evanston. The first of my family put down roots here before it was a county, before Wyoming was a state and nearly a century before I was born. I’ve been here through booms and busts. I’ve stayed to raise a family when my friends moved away. I’ve stayed and donated countless hours and immense effort into projects and this community as a whole. I care.

In the past few months, I have read the entire Request for Proposals issued by the federal government related to an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center to service the Salt Lake City area. I’ve also read the entirety of CoreCivic’s 2018 financial report to shareholders. I’ve researched job opportunities in our community, unemployment patterns throughout Wyoming and bordering states, federal wage requirements for service contractors, U.S. Census Bureau data for communities around the country where ICE detention centers are located and more. All told, I’ve read literally hundreds and hundreds of pages of information. 

To my knowledge, I am one of the few people in the community who has read all of these documents in their entirety. I therefore feel I have an obligation to speak out and share what I’ve learned, as well as my myriad concerns. 

The proposal to construct an ICE facility here in Uinta County is not the solution to our economic woes. 

I’m not going to address concerns about immigration policy or human rights. I’m going to focus purely on economics. Our community has invested tens of thousands of dollars into marketing and efforts to recruit business to our area. 

I don’t know if anyone has had the opportunity to view the marketing videos filmed this summer, but I have. They almost made me cry because they make our community look absolutely amazing and highlight all the best things about being here. 

When questioned about the wisdom of constructing a prison here, the pat answer from local officials seems to be, “It’s not a prison.”

That answer is nothing but semantics. Technically, according to the letter of Wyoming law, officials are right — it’s not a prison because a prison means the people housed there are serving criminal correctional sentences. In a “detention center,” people would presumably be facing civil immigration charges or have already previously served criminal correctional sentences.

That response misses the point. Any facility, with its razor-wire topped fencing and security features, will in fact look like a prison. Are we going to mount a sign next to I-80 reading, “Hey folks, never mind that building right next to our state park that looks like a prison. We know what it looks like, but state law says it’s only a detention center!”

Beyond the negative consequences I believe having such a facility would have for other businesses and specifically tourism, I cannot fathom why we would want to go all in on another uncertain and unstable venture like an ICE facility. Love Trump or hate him, sooner or later the pendulum will swing again on immigration policy. The next administration, which could be in place in slightly over a year, could move to ban private prisons and detention centers just as the Obama administration did. 

CoreCivic’s own financial report refers to such a possibility when discussing risks of their business. The report notes that the federal government can cancel their contract at any time, for any reason, with 60 days notice. 

The for-profit prison and detention industry is so controversial that other states have moved to ban such businesses, and banks are refusing to do business with them. International credit agency Fitch has recently downgraded CoreCivic from stable to negative. Why would we want to embrace such a risky venture? 

The answer frequently given is jobs. We need the jobs. But I argue we don’t need those jobs. As of this writing, there are 15 jobs listed as open in Evanston on the Wyoming state government website – good stable jobs with Wyoming state benefits. There are 252 entries on the Wyoming at Work website for Uinta County, including restaurants, hotels, banks, car dealerships, grocery stores, PacifiCorp, healthcare facilities and more. 

Granted, some of those entries appear to be duplicates, but the problem isn’t that there are no jobs; it’s that people grew accustomed to mineral extraction jobs where a person could make more than $60,000 a year without a high school diploma. Those jobs aren’t coming back like they were – an ICE facility certainly isn’t offering such jobs either. 

The original proposal for a 500-bed facility we were told would employ 100 to 150 people. Presumably, a 1000-bed facility would employ significantly more. Where are these people going to come from? A 2018 interview with then Evanston City Clerk Amy Grenfell focused on economic development, including how many new jobs the community could readily support. Her answer was approximately 65 new jobs. 

The unemployment rate in Uinta County went down to 3.6% in August of this year from 4% in July. Wyoming’s unemployment rate is 3.7%. Nationally, unemployment is at some of the lowest rates in five decades. Even with that low statewide unemployment rate, all the border states surrounding Wyoming are booming and have even lower rates. Which means that people aren’t likely to move to Evanston to make $40,000 a year when they can make more than that in nearby states with an abundance of jobs. 

For comparison’s sake, I also looked up open jobs in law enforcement for the state, which reportedly has issues with chronic understaffing. There are 29 open jobs in Rawlins and seven in Lusk. In fact, WyoFile reported in August that corrections in the state is so short staffed it’s creating dangerous conditions. People are not rushing to fill correctional positions. There is absolutely nothing in an ICE jail that is going to draw people here to work.

Then we’ll be left with an understaffed facility, which would make it more likely to experience problems and abuses, along with other dangerous conditions. When national policy swings away from for-profit detention, then what?

How is that going to lure other businesses here? How is that going to look to people on any ATV trails connecting Evanston to the Bridger Valley as were recently discussed at an economic development meeting, or our beautiful Bear River State Park that is one of the points of pride and joy of our community? How is that going to look to people driving by our town on the interstate? 

Finally, I have to ask why we would even consider doing business with a company – CoreCivic – that refuses to answer questions or maintain contact with local officials. This company presumably has an interest in building a facility in our community, our home. Yet, according to local officials, they have had no contact in nearly two months. When I reached out to CoreCivic, twice, for comment on the proposal, they said they had no information to share. 

I asked very specific questions regarding the number of jobs and the level of wages the community could expect, as well as whether company representatives would visit Uinta County to answer residents’ questions and whether they did intend to submit a proposal. Those questions went unanswered. When this proposal first came up, back in May 2017, MTC visited Evanston to answer questions and meet with residents. CoreCivic has given us no such courtesy. 

This company apparently feels no need to answer our questions or give us any information, even though the first deadline for proposals is in a little over one month. That right there shows how little this company actually cares about the people who live here. 

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