By ANDREW GRAHAM
CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House debated about a proposed private ICE prison in Uinta County on Wednesday of last week, with some lawmakers charging state officials with twisting words to avoid state constitutional and legal oversight.
Lawmakers criticized those who define the project as a “civil holding facility,” which means the project wouldn’t be regulated by state laws that govern jails and prisons.
Debate on the facility proposed for outside of Evanston arose during the final discussion of a bill, SF-89 Local government distributions, that directs $105 million in state funds to local governments. The Legislature has authorized such an appropriation for decades, though it is usually done through the budget and not in a separate bill. Four House members, led by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), proposed an amendment to say none of that money could be used to pursue an “immigration detention facility” without the Legislature’s authorization.
It’s unclear whether Uinta County officials plan to use state money for the project, which has been proposed by a private prison company, Management Training Center, of Utah. The jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City, a representative of the company told WyoFile in October. It would look similar to an MTC-operated ICE jail in southern California. That jail, just north of the border with Mexico, appears from photos on Google Maps to be a large, squat building — similar in appearance to a public high school or community college — but surrounded by security cameras and high chain-link fences topped with coiled barbed wire.
The amendment failed by just two votes. Even sponsor Zwonitzer was surprised by how close the amendment came to passing, he told WyoFile. Though the measure failed, the discussion showed that some in the House want to see the proposed facility labeled a prison and regulated under Wyoming’s laws.
“If it walks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s a duck,” said Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie).
Both local officials and Gov. Matt Mead have chosen not to call the proposed facility a prison. Not doing so clears the road for Uinta County and Management Training Center to negotiate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, largely without worrying about state oversight.
A photo of an MTC-operated ICE detention facility in Southern California. MTC vice president for corrections marketing Mike Murphy pointed to the California facility, which can hold approximately 750 detainees, as an example of what Uinta County could expect. (David Schacher/David Schacher Photography, LLC)