Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mega-Prison for immigrants...

Company wants to build a mega-prison in county

By Leslie Berestein
March 20, 2008

The private prison company that operates a detention center for U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Otay Mesa is proposing to build a nearly3,000-bed mega-prison nearby.

According to county records, Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation ofAmerica has applied for a permit to build a "secure detention facility" in two phases on a parcel of about 40 acres northwest of Alta and Lonestar roads.

A portion of the latter road has yet to be constructed.The proposed prison would have 2,880 beds and would employ 375 people,according to an application the company filed.

It would hold more than four times the number of people that the immigration agency now holds in San Diego. The agency, known as ICE, contracts with Corrections Corporation of America to house up to 700 detainees individuals awaiting deportation or a decision in immigration cases at the company's private San Diego Correctional Facility, which sits on land leased from the county.

A spokesman for the company said the proposed prison would not be built as part of its existing contract with ICE or as a speculative venture, but as a way of ensuring it retains the immigration agency's detention business if the company loses its existing facility. The lease on the land that the San Diego Correctional Facility sits on is set to expire by the end of 2015.

"We have an existing relationship with ICE and other federal customers, and we want to be able to maintain that relationship," company spokesman StevenOwen said. "We want to take steps in a preventive kind of way, to be able toprovide capacity and retain that relationship.

According to the county, the company owns the parcel that the new facility would sit on, eliminating lease concerns. Local officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they were awareof the project, but that they were not sure if ICE would be using the newprison.

The demand for immigration detention beds definitely exists in San Diego, notonly due to stepped-up immigration enforcement nationwide, but also because theagency does not have as many beds as it once did at the San Diego CorrectionalFacility.

According to Corrections Corporation of America's 2006 year-end financialreport, 200 of the detention center's beds were lost to the county in June of that year when a portion of the lease expired. The report states that the number of people being held was not reduced as a result of the expiration "because we had the ability to consolidate inmates."Less than a year later, in January 2007, the American Civil Liberties Unionsued ICE and the company, alleging overcrowding at the facility. The ACLU said two-person cells were crammed with three civil detainees, the third sleeping onthe floor in a plastic cot.Since then, the Otay Mesa facility has held a maximum of 700 detainees a day,where it once held as many as 1,000, said Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman inSan Diego.

"As long as apprehensions continue to increase, we're going to continue toneed not only bed space, but to identify ways to streamline the entiredetention process," Mack said.

Owen said it has still not been determined if the prison will be built.According to county records, the company filed its initial application for aspecific plan amendment and major use permit in July 2006, a month after thefirst part of the county lease expired. Records show the company has since been working to complete various studies required before the project can go to the county's planning commission.

If built, the new facility would be enormous, with administrative space as wellas prison housing and services. The nearby state prison, the R.J. DonovanCorrectional Facility, was designed to hold 2,280, according to the statecorrections department Web site, though it now houses 4,770.

Rob Hixson, a commercial real estate broker who is chairman of the city of SanDiego's Otay Mesa Planning Committee, said he had not heard any complaintsamong those aware of the proposed prison on nearby unincorporated land.

"A lot of people say 'not in my backyard,' but this is a pretty big backyard," Hixson said. "It is a long way from any of our housing." Withupward of 30,000 immigrants now in ICE custody " up from about 18,500 three years ago " Immigration and Customs Enforcement has increasingly turned to private contractors to house detainees.

The relationship has not come without criticism. In addition to the overcrowding lawsuit, the ACLU sued both Corrections Corporation of America and ICE again last summer, alleging severely inadequate medical care at the OtayMesa facility.

A former detainee at the Otay Mesa facility filed a separate lawsuit in LosAngeles last year against the federal government, claiming that he was denied treatment for what turned out to be penile cancer. He died last month. Lastweek, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that his family can go forward with a lawsuit seeking damages from the federal government.

Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579;

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Copyright 2007 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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