Randy Erwin, national president of National Federation of Federal Employees, speaks during a press conference on the closure of the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego at Hotel Republic on March 29, 2022. (Courtesy of Kristian Carreon)

In what a private prison company called an “unprecedented decision,” a federal jail in downtown San Diego was granted an exception to an executive order issued by President Joe Biden, allowing the facility to remain open.

Western Region Detention Facility has been the subject of extensive debate since January 2021, when Biden announced his executive order to phase out federal contracts with private prison companies.

Western Region, which is run by The Geo Group Inc., houses detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service awaiting trial and sentencing on federal charges.

Why this matters

The U.S. government pays more than $50 million a year for a private company to manage a federal jail in San Diego. The jail has faced a litany of complaints over unsafe conditions for detainees, many of whom are from the San Diego area.

The jail was expected to close in September and again in March, each time receiving last-minute reprieves to the surprise of employees and attorneys. The looming closure date was supposed to be Thursday.

But on June 24, GEO Group sent a letter to all employees at Western Region informing them that the facility would remain open.

“The United States Department of Justice filed for and received approval for an exception to President Biden’s Executive Order,” the letter reads.

“We are thankful to all of those who worked behind the scenes to achieve this great outcome,” it says.

According to the letter, GEO Group’s contract to operate the jail was extended through September 2023, and it could be extended through September 2027 if the Marshals Service decides to opt in to additional contract periods.

View of the Western Region Detention Facility along Front and C Street in Downtown San Diego on Friday, February 12, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

“We will continue to work to ensure that (Western Region) continues its operation indefinitely…,” the letter states. “This unprecedented decision is in part due to your exceptional performance. Thank you for all you do and for being part of a great team led by great leaders.”

The decision was praised by union officials representing the jail’s 300 employees, but it was lambasted by criminal justice reform advocates who argue it could encourage attempts to defy Biden’s executive order.

“It matters because it means that the executive order is meaningless,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney at the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It is words on paper and it’s yet another piece of evidence of people in power knowing the right things to say, but never backing those words up with deeds.”

Biden’s executive order states that private detention facilities “do not maintain the same levels of safety and security for people in the Federal criminal justice system or for correctional staff.” It also points out that “mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer.”

Since the executive order was issued, some privately run federal jails have managed to stay open temporarily through short-term contract extensions or by finding complicated workarounds. In Ohio, the company CoreCivic gave up its jail contract with the U.S. Marshals Service and handed it to county officials, who then subcontracted the operations back to CoreCivic, which allowed a federal jail to remain open.

But experts were not aware of any official exemptions granted by the Biden administration other than the one given to Western Region last week.

“It sets a precedent that such a thing is possible,” Vakili said.

“On what criteria is an exemption like this granted?” he added. “What would stop every private prison company from applying for and getting one?”

The Marshals Service and GEO Group did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

After the executive order was announced, local and national coalitions sent letters to the federal government asking for an exception for Western Region.

That includes the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the National Association of Blacks In Criminal Justice. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, whose district includes Western Region, sent his own letter to the White House.

The groups have argued that closing Western Region would hurt detainees, who would have to be transferred hundreds of miles away from the courthouses where their cases are processed, potentially interfering with their ability to see attorneys and family members.

Postcards sent to the Biden administration by employees at Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego. (Courtesy of Randy Erwin)

Randy Erwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the Biden administration’s exemption for Western Region was the right decision.

“It’s a victory for the workers and for the people of San Diego, absolutely,” he said.

Erwin and union members have been calling on the Biden administration for more than a year to step in. Some sent handmade postcards to the White House asking Biden to save their jobs.

By the time Western Region was days away from shuttering in March, most detainees had been transferred to other locations and workers had received letters with termination dates.

“All that uncertainty made things very difficult on the workforce there, so we’re very pleased about a long-term solution,” Erwin said.

Randy Erwin, national president of National Federation of Federal Employees, speaks to members of the press about the closure of the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego at Hotel Republic on March 29, 2022. (Courtesy of Kristian Carreon)

Public records provided in response to an ACLU lawsuit show that the Marshals Service started looking for ways to keep Western Region open shortly after the executive order was issued.

In April 2021, an assistant chief for the Marshals Service emailed GEO Group, asking if the company would consider having the San Diego government take over the jail contract, and then entering into a sub-contract with San Diego officials, effectively allowing GEO Group to keep operating the jail.

By August, GEO Group was working with the small cash-strapped city of McFarland located 150 miles north of San Diego to try to take over the contract. In an email, a Deputy U.S. Marshal commented on the idea, saying: “Well it’s a long shot but hopefully it goes through.”

“The U.S. Marshals have been actively working to undermine the executive order from the beginning,” said Vakili with the ACLU.

“It’s an old decrepit facility that needs to be shut down just for the safety of people inside,” he added.

Detainees and public defenders have complained for years about conditions inside Western Region, and GEO Group is facing two class action lawsuits for its management of the San Diego jail.

The Western Region Detention Facility seen on Front Street in downtown San Diego on March 29, 2022. (Courtesy of Kristian Carreon)

Erwin, with the employees union, has defended the jail’s track record and said the allegations about unsafe living conditions are unsubstantiated. 

The Federal Defenders of San Diego, which represents many of the detainees at Western Region, has advocated for using the executive order as an opportunity to lower bonds and offer pre-trial releases to more clients, most of whom are facing nonviolent charges.

But the ACLU emails — the first batch to be released in response to the lawsuit — do not mention any efforts to reduce the jail population. Instead, Marshals Service officials scramble to find new locations to house detainees.

“This is going to be a mess if they really try and close them down!” one Marshals Service employee wrote.

Vakili said the ACLU will continue pressing forward with its lawsuit “to find out the extent to which the government has been working behind the scenes to achieve this result from the beginning.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jill Castellano is an investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...