As man dies in ICE custody, California moves to ban for-profit prisons, including immigrant jails

Incarceration at for-profit prisons in California peaked at about 7,000 prisoners in 2016, but state officials have been shifting prisoners to publicly run prisons in recent years.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

A Cameroonian immigrant died this week in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in California. The man, identified as 37-year-old Nebane Abienwi, died on Tuesday after suffering a brain hemorrhage. This comes as California lawmakers passed a bill last month that would ban private prisons statewide, a major blow to the for-profit prison industry in the U.S. that is deeply entangled in immigration detention. The legislation also orders the closure of four ICE prisons that can jail up to 4,500 immigrants. The bill is currently awaiting the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom, who said in his January inaugural address that California should “end the outrage of private prisons once and for all.” Incarceration at for-profit prisons in California peaked at about 7,000 prisoners in 2016, but state officials have been shifting prisoners to publicly run prisons in recent years. Hamid Yazdan Panah, an immigration attorney with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, joins us for a conversation about the bill and immigrant detention in California.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In California, a 37-year-old immigrant from Cameroon died Tuesday after he fell ill in an ICE prison. In a statement, ICE said the man, Nebane Abienwi, became partially paralyzed after suffering a brain hemorrhage in the middle of the night at Otay Mesa Detention Center. ICE says he was rushed to a San Diego hospital but died after undergoing treatment. The immigration jail is operated by CoreCivic, a for-profit prison corporation.

In a statement, Lizbeth Abeln of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice said, quote, “The ongoing loss of life in immigration detention is not only heartbreaking, it’s infuriating. There is a bill sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk right now waiting to be signed that would ban private detention, like Otay, from [California]. People in detention cannot afford to be behind bars a second longer, Newsom needs to sign now,” she said. Albeln was referring to the bill that California lawmakers passed last month banning private prisons statewide, in a major blow to the for-profit prison industry in the U.S.

We’re joined now by Hamid Yazdan Panah, an immigration attorney with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice.

You were seminal in the shaping of this bill. If you could start off by explaining just what this bill exactly says?

HAMID YAZDAN PANAH: Yes. So, this bill actually sends a very clear message that people are not commodities and that the state of California values people over profits and that corporations should no longer be allowed to profit off of the incarceration or the detention of California residents.

AMY GOODMAN: And it has been passed by both houses in the California Legislature?


AMY GOODMAN: And what is the governor’s intention here? What do you understand? He has yet to sign it, but it was just passed.

HAMID YAZDAN PANAH: Yeah, we expect the governor will do the right thing and that he’ll uphold the campaign promises that he made. He did state during his campaign that he would seek to end for-profit prisons in California. And we expect him to continue to do the right thing with respect to this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does it mean? What would happen in California? How much of the California prison system and immigration jail system is run by for-profit companies?

HAMID YAZDAN PANAH: Well, so, as it stands right now, there are four major private facilities that house detainees, in the immigration context, in California. Those facilities are operated by large for-profit entities, and those facilities would no longer be allowed to renew their contracts. A number of those facilities actually are, you know, rife with immigration abuse. One of those facilities, the Adelanto facility, is actually the second-deadliest facility in the entire nation. And so, what will essentially happen is that these facilities will no longer be allowed to continue their contracts. And hopefully, it means the end of for-profit immigration detention in California.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about this latest death and how it fits into this picture?

HAMID YAZDAN PANAH: Yeah, one of the reasons why for-profit facilities are so problematic is that they don’t have the same degree of transparency and accountability that you would expect from an institution which deprives people of their liberty. And so, we’ve seen over and over again that these private facilities don’t care about medical conditions. They don’t care about transparency. They don’t care about accountability. And they treat people, essentially, like commodities. They’re incentivized to do that. That’s their entire business operation, is to treat people like commodities. They don’t care about, you know, conditions across the board. And so, this bill very squarely sends a message that California will no longer allow this practice to continue.

And the deaths that we’ve seen are a direct result of a combination of horrific policies by this administration in the context of immigration detention. Immigration detention, as a whole, is needless. People do not need to be detained in the context of immigration and civil proceedings. And to add to that, the for-profit detention of immigrants is abhorrent. It’s morally reprehensible. It’s something that in 10 to 20 years from now we’ll look back on with complete disgust. And I think this bill is the first step in ending that.

AMY GOODMAN: The first death at an ICE jail in this fiscal year just occurred yesterday at Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego, the 37-year-old man from Cameroon. It’s the ninth death this year. Almost 200 people have died in ICE detention since 2003. If you can talk about — and immigrant rights groups are calling now for an investigation, of course, into this death. If you can talk about how this connects to the ICE detention facilities, the overall picture with for-profit prisons? ICE has contracts with for-profit centers, particularly the GEO Group, that are supposed to expire this year. Will the bill prevent these contracts from being renewed? But start off with the particular Cameroonian man who died yesterday.

HAMID YAZDAN PANAH: Yes. So, overall, within the context of conditions, as I said before, the private facilities lack transparency. The attorney general of California actually has the mandate to be able to investigate the conditions of these facilities, and they were actually denied access in their initial inquiry into the private detention facilities in California. So, again, we’ve seen that there’s a lack of accountability and transparency in these facilities, which lead to things like deaths in detention, people suffering. And so, this bill, again, will remove the for-profit incentive from these companies in running these facilities, and hopefully, that results in fewer people being detained within the context of these for-profit facilities and, overall, fewer people dying in these facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this and whether or not the governor signs this ban on for-profit prisons. Hamid Yazdan Panah is an immigration attorney with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice.

That does it for our broadcast here in San Francisco. We’ll be here again tomorrow. Nermeen Shaikh will speaking tonight Ithaca, New York, at 7:00. Check our website at


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