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Activist Amani Sawari talks about what the impact on people in private prisons and immigration detention centers will be if Governor Gavin Newsom signs AB32, which would phase out private prisons by 2028.

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EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway, host of Rattling the Bars for The Real News Network.

California lawmakers passed a bill banning private prisons. And the bill will likely close down four immigration detention centers operated by ICE. California has one of the largest growing markets in private prisons. Governor Newsom must still sign AB 32 for the bill to go in effect. Private prisons will be fully phased out in 2028.
Joining me today to kind of like give us an understanding of what’s going on, what’s happening around the bill, is [Amani 00:00:50] and thank you for joining me.

AMANI SAWARI: Thank you for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, so tell me a little bit about this bill, how it came to be. I understand that a couple years ago the University of California divested their money from private prisons based on activities of the student union, ABC, and I understand later on the state of California was forced to divest its money from private prisons and now this is a major thing that’s happening, banning private prisons altogether. What caused this?

AMANI SAWARI: I think it’s mainly been public pressure and the exposure of conditions, especially in the immigrant detention facility, which are more properly to be known as private prisons. There are a lot of private prisons that don’t hold immigrant detainees, but as there has been a rise of backlash against ICE and their detention centers, people are beginning to understand that corrections, detention, and incarceration should not be a privatized industry that should be profitable for anyone. And so the public backlash has caused lawmakers to pass this bill A 32 and they’ve been very diligent about getting it through. Now it’s sitting on the governor’s desk. So I would mainly, definitely, really say that it’s the public who in making this outcry and making sure that this has gotten the attention of law makers.

EDDIE CONWAY: Now, Newsom, what’s his record on prison-industrial complex? Do you think he’ll sign this? Has he been supportive all along of the other activities around the prison industrial complex? I do recognize how he banned the death penalty for California. That was a major thing. But what’s his record? And do you think he’ll sign this?

AMANI SAWARI: So Newsom, I do think he’s going to sign the bill. I definitely do because mainly the public is standing behind this bill. Lawmakers have already gotten the bill through both sides of the houses, so I don’t think that he wants to be the one to stand in the way and really stand on the wrong side of history when it comes to banning and really abolishing, I like using that word, private prisons in the state of California. Governor Newsom’s history isn’t that long as it relates, especially as a governor since he’s only been here 2019, but one of his first acts as governor was in the juvenile detention space. He had the California for all legislation, in which he designated funding towards juvenile detention centers and juvenile corrections departments to make sure that those facilities were more humane, less punitive, and more rehabilitative for juvenile detainees.

What he did was give $2 million in funding to the AmeriCorps Corporation to assist newly released juvenile detainees. And then he also designated 100 million in funding for trauma screening for incoming detainees to make sure that their traumas were taken into account when assigning their sentences. So Newsom has made some light headway as it relates to the prison industrial complex on the side of juvenile detention, but we’re really seeing Newsom just follow a national trend. A lot of states have been definitely trying to transform their juvenile detention facilities to be more humane.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. So now California is one of the largest growing markets for private prisons. If this bill is passed, how will this impact marginalized communities in California, do you think?

AMANI SAWARI: I think it will have a slight impact. When we look at the wording of the bill, we see that it is specifically for private prisons and we’ve come to know the narrative of private prisons being abusive, overcrowded, giving slave wages, but we have to remember that these are the same conditions in state-run prisons as well. It’s not private prisons who set any standard for how detainees or inmates are treated inside of them. Right now California’s prison population is well over 120,000 people. The number of people incarcerated in private facilities is lower than 10% of that. There are about 4,170 people incarcerated in California’s private prisons and then California also has a population of people in their private prison industry that are actually housed in Arizona and that’s about 8,768 people.

So it’s going to impact less than 10% of the incarcerated population, which won’t have a super heavy impact on the marginalized communities, but we are going to see some positive impacts as a result of the bill. For example, we’re not going to see people being assigned to sentences in private prisons and since they’re phasing private prisons out we’re not going to see as many people assigned to those detention facilities, but it’s definitely not the majority of people who are impacted overall.

EDDIE CONWAY: Mm-hmm. Now, the GEO Group that operates four private prisons in California has a contract that’s going to expire in 2023. Do you think those centers will be closed down? Is that part of what this bill is saying? Banning new ones is one thing. Closing the ones that exist, that’s another issue altogether. Do you think these four will be closed?

AMANI SAWARI: Because their contract ends in 2023, I think what we’re going to see is similar to what we saw in Washington state. So we might see the detention facility turn into, for example, in Tacoma there is a detention facility that was renamed to the Northwest Immigrant Processing Facility. So we could see that-

EDDIE CONWAY: Oh, let me just stop for one minute. What does that mean? I mean is it still being ran by private entities or did it become part of a federal or state network?

AMANI SAWARI: It is still being run by private entities. It is not part of the federal or state network. The Northwest Immigrant Processing Facility still has cells in it. People are still housed there against their will inside of cages. It just has a new name and it’s called a processing facility. So the idea is that people are processed through it rather than held there.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. So you think the four that’s in California might be renamed something else and come back into being in another form but still owned by private contractors?

AMANI SAWARI: I definitely think that the facilities will still be owned by private contractors. Operations might change slightly in order to accommodate the new language of the bill, but I think that lawmakers are already prepared for the bill to pass. The majority of the detainees that are in ICE facilities that are supposed to be in California are actually in Arizona’s La Palma Correctional Facility. So if the majority of their inmates are already over there, their immigrant detainees are already over there. The legislation won’t impact that population at all.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. All right. So we have to kind of watch this then and maybe see what happens. When is this bill supposed to be signed?

AMANI SAWARI: Hopefully the bill is signed before the end of the month, but it’s really up to Governor Newsom.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. This is the final question. Is there any kind of mobilization on the ground to kind of, for 2023 I know that’s way, a whole lot of things can happen between now and then, but is there a mobilization or even some talk about shutting those four facilities down when their contract expire?

AMANI SAWARI: Right now there is mobilization as it relates to abolishing ICE in general, especially in the state of California. There are organizations like Initiate Justice in California that are really watching detention centers and prisons very closely and making sure to hold lawmakers accountable to the legislation that they pass. I think it’s really important that we don’t just follow the narrative as it relates to abolishing ICE or ending private prisons. We need to make sure that we’re not just happy with the language or the symbolic things that are coming out of the legislation. It’s symbolic to see that there’s a piece of legislation for abolishing the detention facilities, but if we don’t actually see that happen and all we see is an evolution of the detention facilities and what they’re called or a renaming of detention facilities.

We need to ask that companies like GEO Group be closed because they’ve been operating with inhumane, destitute, oppressive policies for so long. We need to be asking for more than what lawmakers are really putting out there and really holding them accountable to what they do put out there, but we need to keep pushing them further and further to the left.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. I’m not going to ask you any more questions. We’ll probably try to get back in touch with you again later after this bill is signed and we can see what might be coming down the road in the future, but you’re absolutely right. The symbolism is great, but we need to close the facilities. If the facility’s still operating then nothing’s going to happen in the prison industrial complex.


EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, so thank you for joining me.

AMANI SAWARI: Thank you so much for having me,

EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.