Federal Union Calls for Biden to Keep San Diego Detention Center Open
The union and a lawmaker are questioning the applicability of President Biden’s executive order to not renew contracts with private prisons.
A federal employee union is calling on the Biden administration to keep open a private California detention center for the U.S. Marshals Service in order to save 300 jobs. The union is questioning the applicability of the president’s executive order to not renew contracts with private prisons, a decision agency officials said would be “detrimental” in some areas.
In recent weeks, the National Federation of Federal Employees, along with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, an affiliate of AFL-CIO, have called on the Biden administration to keep open the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego. The prison is operated under a U.S. Marshals Service contract with GEO Group that is set to expire on September 30. The Marshals Service is a federal law enforcement agency within the Justice Department responsible for transporting federal prisoners, among other things.
“Mr. President, we are calling on you to stand with workers and save these 300 good-paying, union jobs,” said Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, during a press conference on August 26. “These workers provide an invaluable public service to the community. These jobs are critical to these 300 families and the San Diego area, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 7%. Please, do not stand in the way of U.S. Marshals Service continuing their contract to keep this senseless closure from happening. These workers are depending on you.”
The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and the San Diego County sheriff have also sent letters to Biden in support of the San Diego facility.
Biden signed an executive order on January 27 saying, “the attorney general shall not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, as consistent with applicable law.”
Erwin told Government Executive the executive order does “not necessarily” apply to the U.S. Marshals Service as “the role that USMS plays to detain individuals for a short period of time while awaiting trial is very different from the role prisons play detaining people for longer periods of time who have been found guilty of crimes.” He also noted that in May, the White House allowed the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center to remain open, suggesting that if the executive order applied to the Marshals Service, it would have been closed.
Neither the executive order itself nor remarks by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice during a briefing on the day of the signing specified which Justice Department agencies were affected by the order. The White House did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this article’s publication.
In a letter to the president on August 17, Erwin and Robert Martinez Jr., international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO, wrote that the agency “does not have the statutory authority to own or operate detention facilities; therefore the use of contractor owned and operated detention space is essential to the USMS’ ability to house prisoners pending adjudication.” The Marshals Service uses private detention facilities in areas that lack federal or state options..
“The Department of Justice is committed to implementing the president’s executive order on private detention facilities,” said Lynzey Donahuem, U.S. Marshals Service spokesperson, in a statement to Government Executive on Monday. “The U.S. Marshals Service is carefully examining its existing contracts with these facilities, mindful that any plans should avoid unnecessarily disrupting access to counsel, court appearances, and family support.”
The closure has also gotten the attention of Congress.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., in whose district the facility is located, sent a letter to Biden on Wednesday, obtained by Government Executive, saying that while he fully supports the goals of the January executive order, he doesn’t believe “applying [it] to U.S. Marshals’ facilities will serve to remedy the problems we face within our criminal justice system.”
He shared his worries about the implications of closing the San Diego facility as well as said “it is my understanding that E.O. 14006 is being selectively enforced; a contract for a similar facility in Ohio was recently extended.” He noted that his office has reached out to the Justice Department about the closure.
Other lawmakers have previously expressed uneasiness about the executive order.
In April, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., sent a letter to Biden raising concerns about the order’s impact on the U.S. Marshals Service. They cited an internal agency document, dated February 10, 2021, that says “losing the use of these private detention facilities would be detrimental to USMS districts that currently rely on private facilities,” where there are no state or local facilities to use.
The document, obtained by Government Executive, notes that, “The primary impact of losing the privately-operated detention space is the effect it will have on the operational mission, as well as the capability to house prisoners proximate to the federal courthouses where they are being prosecuted. … If the USMS was required to house prisoners further from the courthouses, additional transportation resources would be needed, either funding to support the additional costs that would be incurred by the state and local facilities to transport prisoners or with additional Deputy United States Marshals (FTE) to perform the transports.”
The document notes that the Marshals Service tries to house prisoners within 50 miles of the courthouse hearing their case to “accommodate defendants’ need for access to their legal counsel and personal support system, such as family.”
The agency declined to comment on the document.