People pack commission chambers to force conversation about proposed ICE facility

Evanston resident Katie Beppler speaks at the Oct. 15 meeting of the Uinta County Commissioners. Beppler told commissioners she is concerned about the proposal to construct an ICE detention center in Evanston and asked why they would want to put a “prison at the very entrance to our beautiful community.” (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Commission chambers were filled to capacity for the regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 15, when the Uinta County Commissioners heard from several area residents who voiced their concerns over a proposed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. A dozen residents took turns at the podium to share concerns and ask questions of commissioners, with only two of those speakers expressing support for the proposal. 

Commissioner Mark Anderson attended the meeting via speaker phone. 

Evanston resident Katie Beppler, who had formally requested to be placed on the agenda, said she is a 40-year resident of the city, which she said has grown into a “beautiful community” that she loves.

“I can’t fathom why you would want to put something as ugly as a prison at the very entrance to our beautiful community,” she said.

Commission chair Eric South responded, “Well, in the first place, it’s not a prison.”

Beppler pushed back and said, “Well, it will have high chain link fence with razor wire on top and locked gates and people will be conducted there in manacles.” 

Commissioner Craig Welling said county officials are looking at the proposed facility as a mechanism for job growth in the community. Welling said there are pros and cons to the proposal, but he believes it can bring at least 150 jobs into the area.

“I know there’s a lot of concern based on disinformation,” he said. 

Beppler said she has read through some of the Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the federal government and has not been able to find documentation of the number of jobs. Welling said the 150 number was given by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the company that was initially pursuing the proposal before abruptly pulling out in July, only to have another company, CoreCivic, express interest. Welling said he assumes that since the number of potential detainees has increased to 1,000, the number of employees would increase as well; however, he conceded he has not personally read the RFP. 

Beppler questioned whether the community could support that many new jobs and what the impact would be on other agencies in the county. Welling said he presumed that some positions would be filled by current residents while others would need to be filled by people moving to the community. 

Beppler also questioned whether an ICE facility would be sustainable given that border apprehensions have been going down over the past several months and it’s possible the need for such a facility would diminish. Welling said he has spoken with officials in other counties with similar facilities, one of which had experienced a two-year closure; however, he said that facility had been reopened after two years with a new contract. 

Welling said the facility would bring economic benefits to the county through property taxes and jobs, with that money recirculated throughout the county. He said the county does not plan to receive money directly from the federal government related to the facility.

“At this point, our intent is not to be receiving money monthly,” said Welling. 

Beppler said she is concerned because she believes local officials have been conducting business behind closed doors.

“I’ve had to glean every bit of information that I’ve found by poring laboriously through public documents requested by the press,” she said. “I feel like maybe our commissioners should give to your constituents some kind of explanation as to what all this is. If it’s really above board and we really stand to gain all these economic benefits, we should be shouting this from the rooftops and not hiding. I just don’t understand why this feels so secretive.” 

Welling replied, “Well, that feeling belongs to you,” at which point several of those present groaned and shot back, “No, to all of us.” 

Welling said, contrary to what some people may think, commissioners have had no contact with CoreCivic since late August, when county officials visited a CoreCivic detention center in California.

“When we are in potential negotiations and meetings with people, we will share what we learn. We don’t have that information,” he said. 

Beppler also asked how a detention facility fit in with the recent Miller Report, which Uinta and South Lincoln counties commissioned to specifically look at economic development opportunities.

“I can’t see that a prison was any part of an economic development plan that was paid for through that,” she said. 

South said the county is open to anybody interested in coming in to start businesses. “Everybody’s always saying, ‘We need to get something going here. Evanston’s dying,’ but none of them bring anything forth. We haven’t signed on the dotted line yet, but it’s disheartening to me to hear all these folks come up and complain and whine about what’s going on, but they don’t have any ideas and they don’t bring anything in.” 

Following Beppler’s comments, several other people spoke. Local residents Dave Crofts and Jonny Pentz spoke in favor of the proposal. Crofts said he had called an economic development coordinator in Raymondville, Texas, who had nothing but positive comments about a similar facility. Crofts said the gentleman he spoke with said the detention center there had a tremendous positive impact on the community, bringing in new and thriving businesses, and that none of the negative impacts naysayers had predicted had actually come to pass. (Editor’s Note: Raymondville is home to the Willacy County Correctional Center, an MTC facility that was closed in 2015 following a detainee riot and subsequent fire. The community is home to multiple detention centers.) 

According to data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau on census.gov, the population estimate of Raymondville is slightly more than 11,000, with a median household income of $23,281, a median home value of $46,300, and a poverty level of 41.5%. For comparison, the median household income in Uinta County is listed as $54,672, with a median home value of $178,400 and a poverty level of 10.2%. 

Pentz said people who are concerned about a detention center being “ugly” should look at current conditions in Evanston. “Is the poverty in this town not ugly enough for you to not realize that the detention center’s going to help some people?” Pentz said people in the community are struggling with poverty and the facility would bring in much-needed jobs. 

Pentz said people complain about not wanting to see the detention center, but residents could go down on Main Street and see multiple businesses for sale, “drunks on the weekends” or “kids propped up in their arms doing drugs, going to jail.” 

Pentz said he himself was offered a job offer in Kansas for $80,000 a year, which he turned down because, “That’s nothing. That’s not even middle class.” Someone else could be heard asking, “Is that job still available?” as others snickered. 

Other speakers, however, said there are jobs in the community, pointing to agencies like the Wyoming State Hospital that seem to have difficulties filling positions. Suzanne MacEwen said working in a detention facility would be a “soul-eating job” that people wouldn’t want, which would make it impossible to staff fully. She also pushed back on commissioners, who insisted it wouldn’t be a prison.

“Call it a detention center,” she said, “but when the administration changes it becomes a prison. Whatever. That’s lipstick on a pig.” 

Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas explained that, according to Wyoming law, a prison would need to have the approval of the five statewide elected officials and a detention facility couldn’t automatically be converted into a prison. 

Still other speakers also questioned the likelihood of people filling ICE facility jobs based on the wages offered. Colleen Kunz said she had done online research on Indeed and GlassDoor and she doesn’t believe the wage ranges mentioned are high enough to lure people to the community to fill positions. She also said the reviews from former employees of CoreCivic included complaints about benefits, poor safety and inadequate training. 

Uinta County Clerk Amanda Hutchinson said wages would be governed by federal contractor requirements. Initially at the meeting Hutchinson referred to the Davis-Bacon Act governing wages; however, in a subsequent phone call to the Herald, Hutchinson clarified wages at any facility would actually be governed by the federal McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA). The SCA dictates minimum wages for job positions based on the prevailing wages in a given geographical area. 

A register of wage determinations for the Uinta County area, revised on Sept. 16 of this year, includes hundreds of job titles and wages. Protective service occupations that may apply to an ICE facility, which include corrections officers, detention officers and guards, range from a low of $15.62 per hour for a guard to a high of $25.25 for a detention officer. However, it is unknown if a facility would be primarily staffed with guards, detention officers or a combination. 

Several people suggested local officials could work together with citizens to form committees to research not only the proposed detention center but other opportunities to bring development to the area, such as a technical or vocational school. Lynne Fox referred to public committees that were formed during the oil boom and the accomplishments that came out of that process. 

Fox said she is concerned about private prison facilities and detention centers being outlawed in other states.

“There are reasons why that’s happening,” she said. “There’s a reason Utah doesn’t want it. If communities that do have greater resources have made a decision that this isn’t good for them, maybe we should understand why. Are they taking advantage of us because we’re desperate for jobs and we’re nice people? Maybe we’re not asking all the questions we need to be asking.” 

Others shared concerns about the increased costs to local agencies that may occur if families were to follow detainees, increasing the burden on social service agencies and negating any increased tax revenues. Gary Ellingford said he believes it would be better to pursue a new county fairgrounds or some type of recreation facility that wouldn’t carry the possibility of increased social service use.

“The costs, in my estimation, would be much greater,” Ellingford said. 

Pete Bass spoke as a long-time resident who has also served time in a federal prison. He said for-profit prison companies are focused solely on profit and employ three mechanisms to make more money, including cutting food budgets and cutting staff. The third mechanism, according to Bass, is to “increase the inmate population, which they’ve already done and they haven’t even opened the doors.”

Kayne Pyatt, who is a reporter for the Uinta County Herald but spoke as a private citizen, said she was “begging” commissioners to listen to the concerns of constituents and not approve a detention center that would “ruin” Evanston’s image, and then said, “If you must do it, if you won’t listen to us, please don’t put it where kids sleigh ride in the winter, where we walk and we would have to look up at a prison.” 

Following public comments, Howieson-Kallas, South and Welling reiterated there had been no contact with CoreCivic officials since late August, saying there had been no requests for information or data and no information on whether CoreCivic would, in fact, be submitting a proposal. Welling and South also said if there were to be any contact and indications a project may be moving forward, there would be public meetings scheduled to further discuss the proposal.

According to the 191-page RFP, volume I of any proposal, the environmental volume, is due by Nov. 29. Volume I “consists of the offeror’s environmental documentation which identifies the potential environmental impacts, proposed mitigation and any other relevant information pertaining to the impacts of the proposed site.” The RFP states this will be done in compliance with NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). 

Hutchinson said MTC commissioned a NEPA study of the proposed site on county-owned property adjacent to the Bear River State Park before the company made the decision not to pursue the facility. It is not clear if MTC and CoreCivic reached an arrangement to share the results of that study. 

Following submission of volume I, a response to the RFP would include three additional subsequent volumes, which would be submitted within 30 days after “the government informs the offeror to submit.” Those volumes would include demonstrated technical/management capability, past performance and a price/cost proposal. 

When reached for comment on Oct. 7, Brandon Bissell, CoreCivic Public Affairs Manager, said, “As part of an ongoing process, CoreCivic reviews procurements to understand the needs of governments and if we can provide a responsive solution. To that end, we are conducting our diligence on this RFP and how best to respond. At this stage, it is premature for us to elaborate further…” When reached for follow-up on Oct. 17, Bissell said only, “We have nothing new to report on the RFP.”

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