With room full of opposition, commissioners affirm support for immigration detention center

With commission chambers filled to capacity, Evanston resident Gina Black questions county commissioners about a proposed ICE facility. Black said she doesn’t understand why commissioners support the proposal and challenged the notion that Evanston is a “dying” community. (HERALD PHOTO/Mark Tesoro)

EVANSTON — Uinta County Commissioners again heard from opponents of the proposal to locate an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Evanston during the regular commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 19, when commissioners unanimously passed a measure of support for the proposal. 

Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas explained the resolution was non-binding and was being approved to replace a prior resolution that had been passed in 2017, when the company pursuing the proposal was Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Now that MTC is no longer responding to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the federal government, a new resolution was needed to express support specifically for CoreCivic, the company that may now be responding to the RFP. 

Following Howieson-Kallas’s comments, given the full commission chambers and number of people who wished to speak on the matter, commission chair Eric South said speakers would be limited to three minutes each; however, all of the speakers exceeded that time limit. 

Many of the comments and concerns were similar to those expressed at the Oct. 15 commission meeting, including concerns about the impact a detention facility would have on future economic development and the Bear River State Park, whether the community had the workforce to support such a facility, the track record of CoreCivic and the ethics of an immigration detention center itself. 

Jenn Beachler said, “Southwestern Wyoming is a treasure,” adding that she doesn’t believe an ICE facility is representative of the community she loves. She said she appreciates the efforts of commissioners to pursue economic development and their integrity and due diligence in considering the proposal. “However, your integrity and your diligence is not necessarily the same as what we will find in CoreCivic,” said Beachler. “Corporations do not have integrity. They are not angels in suits. … Bringing in an outside corporation is not a solution that is gold plated.” 

She went on to say there are communities in Appalachia that have embraced private prisons in hopes of economic development that have been left “devastated” and with collapsed economies.

“Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that this will create a wonderful boost to our economy,” Beachler said. “Is it really worth selling our souls for, no matter how much money our community might make? Does that still allow us to be a community of integrity?” 

Beachler further said there are many in the community who believe such a facility is immoral, constituents who shouldn’t be ignored, and that such a wound “may not heal.” She suggested the community could come together to develop economic development options that citizens could be proud of and that wouldn’t create a “rift.” 

St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church’s Father Augustine Carrillo read a letter from Bishop Steven Biegler of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne in opposition to the facility. (Editor’s Note: That letter was also sent to the Herald and appears on the opinion page of this issue.) 

Local resident Jeff Green questioned what impact a 1,000-bed facility would have on the Uinta County Landfill and on water usage during water shortage years. He said he is concerned the building would be abandoned at some point and leave an eyesore for the community to deal with. Responding to questions about what infrastructure was already in place on the proposed site near the Bear River State Park, commissioner Craig Welling said grant money was used to extend water and sewer lines to the area after the land was purchased from the state several years ago. 

Joice Mander said she fears it is too late for those opposed to do anything to change commissioners’ minds and said she believes there have been secretive meetings and conversations occurring behind the scenes to which the public has not been privy. Mander also said she is concerned about potential problems for the Evanston Police Department and Uinta County Sheriff’s Office if employees are pulled from local law enforcement positions to work at a detention center. 

Resident David Dickerson asked if commissioners are aware of litigation and controversy surrounding CoreCivic, including lawsuits in Idaho about fraudulent billing and submitting false staffing reports. According to multiple 2015 news reports, the FBI declined to pursue criminal charges in the fraudulent billing case because the evidence showed only low-level employees participating in falsifying reports. Dickerson said there are several other lawsuits that have been filed against CoreCivic, adding, “I left out the humanitarian issues because, frankly, and I don’t mean to offend, I don’t think you all care.” 

Eric Mander said he has read the RFP and has numerous questions. He said in reading the RFP he can find only one reference to wages for any of the positions, that of $19.80 for a detention officer. Mander also said the RFP indicates 10 high-paying jobs, but he questioned whether those jobs would be located in Evanston because he doesn’t see any office space described for those 10 high-paying positions in a description of how many offices and cubicles are required. 

Howieson-Kallas said the first portion of the RFP Mander mentioned, regarding detention officer wages, was only for example purposes of how a proposal should be submitted and was not indicative of any wage that would be offered at a potential facility. The portion of the RFP detailing office and cubicle space deals only with the number of ICE-specific employees — 65 — that would work at the facility and not with the total number of employees that would be contracted by CoreCivic itself, including the 10 high-paying positions Mander referenced. 

Mander also referenced a section in the RFP dealing with firearms and said detention officers and supervisors will be armed and in body armor. “This is a prison,” he said. “This isn’t a detention center.” 

Commissioner Mark Anderson said he has read the RFP and didn’t recall anything about firearms or body armor and further said he didn’t recall seeing sidearms or body armor on an August tour of a CoreCivic facility in California. The RFP does include a specific section on firearms and body armor on pages 92-94. 

Dave and Gina Black shared their opinion that the county isn’t dying and doesn’t need the jobs, citing unfilled positions and especially difficulties in recruiting physicians and mental health professionals at Evanston Regional Hospital and the Wyoming State Hospital.

Welling said, “If the community isn’t dying, it’s subsiding,” and spoke of his large family of children and grandchildren, most of whom he said have left Evanston because of a lack of employment opportunities. 

Dave Black spoke of Wyoming’s community gateways, including places like Sheridan, Cody and Jackson, and drew comparisons between prison communities, including Rawlins, Lusk and Torrington.

“Do you want to be grouped with a gateway community to recreation, good families, fresh air, freedom and fun,” he said, “or do you want to be another one of the prison communities? Do you want signs on the interstate as they pass by our beautiful community warning people to watch out for hitchhikers?” 

Dave Black also questioned the wisdom of doing business with CoreCivic, saying, “This company drags litigation behind it like a dead animal.” 

Anderson, who was elected to the commission last year, said questions about the ICE facility were by far the most common while he was campaigning. He said he has done his due diligence in researching the proposal and said two out of three people who have spoken to him about it are in favor. “I cannot ignore that,” he said.

Referring to the potential liabilities of doing business with CoreCivic, Anderson said there are liabilities with every company.

“If I did a search for Cabela’s and liabilities, I’m sure Cabela’s has been sued many times for all kinds of things,” he said.

The only person who went to the podium to speak in favor of the proposal was Evanston attorney Dean Stout, who said he is 100% for it. Stout said in the 20 years he has lived in the community, he has heard repeatedly about the need for diversification, but nothing ever comes of those conversations. He said the recently announced closures of the Kemmerer power plant due to the “war on fossil fuels” make the potential jobs at a detention center necessary and said people in the community are scared to stand up in favor of the proposal because of “bullying.” 

As the meeting wore on and speakers continually exceeded the three-minute time limit, it was evident that patience was wearing thin on both sides. People began to speak out of turn and over one another, demanding time to be heard, while county officials countered by saying conversations about this proposal have been ongoing for more than two years and there has been ample time for people to speak. Some community members accused commissioners, without evidence, of turning away other businesses — accusations commissioners vehemently denied. 

Finally, commissioners said no further comments would be allowed so they could move on to other business on the agenda. However, a public meeting with representatives from CoreCivic and Municipal Capital Markets Group (the financial group pursuing the proposal, which may be purchasing land from the county for facility construction) has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 2, in the Roundhouse’s Portland Rose Room. 

Howieson-Kallas said binding decisions regarding the proposal would likely occur in early December following that meeting, which is scheduled for the night before the next regular commission meeting at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3. 


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