For people untouched by federal immigration policy, the issue can feel distant. But a planned immigration jail in Uinta County has made the issue intensely local for the residents of Evanston.
Driving up a windswept hill overlooking I-80, Evanston resident and former state lawmaker Saundra Meyer surveys the scene. You can see just a little of the State Hospital across the way and if it weren’t for a small rise in the landscape to the west, the Bear River Rest Area would be easily visible.
In a few short years, this place could see the high fences and barbed wire of an ICE detention center holding up to 1,000 undocumented immigrants. The center has been a matter of debate in Uinta County for about two years.
The first private company to consider building the center, MTC, pulled out this summer. That opened the door for CoreCivic, which is now pursuing the contract. Originally it was envisioned as a 500-bed facility. But now, ICE says the center must now be twice as large. And the Uinta County Commission just voted on a measure to support CoreCivic's proposal to locate a detention center in the county.
The facility would likely sit high above I-80 just beyond the east end of Evanston, and not far from Bear River State Park.
"From the interstate, it would be visible," Meyer said. "And from the visitor's center, it would be visible."
Saundra Meyer has served as an Evanston city councilor and as a state legislator. She opposes the center, in part, because of CoreCivic’s contentious track record.
CoreCivic owns and builds private prisons across the U.S. The company used to be called Corrections Corporation of America, but rebranded in 2016. The company was extensively criticized in the national press for the treatment of inmates in its prisons, as well as its cost-saving measures and efforts to lobby for tougher criminal sentences.
But Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson takes a different view.
"Anytime we're looking at having a company of any kind come and operate business in our county, we like to know what kind of county partner we're going to have, if they’re going to give back to the community in any way," he said.
Anderson was elected in 2018, so the issue of the detention center predates his tenure as commissioner. But he’s been thinking a lot about the potential construction, the jobs it might bring, and the spillover effects it could have for the community.
"Diversifying the economy is something that, as a commissioner, I would be a fool if I don't look at every opportunity that comes into our county," he said. "That being said, it's my duty and my job to do my due diligence and make sure the impacts of anything that comes into our community is not going to be a detriment."
Anderson made a list of concerns, some raised by community members, others his own, and reached out to councilors, commissioners, mayors and other officials in cities and communities that are home to CoreCivic facilities.
"As divisive as this issue is, I'll be honest with you, there was part of me that was hoping I would find something in all of my studies and research that would be a call-clear sign that says, do not let this in your community," Anderson said.
What he found instead were ringing endorsements. City and county officials across the U.S. told Anderson that CoreCivic was a good company, that it supported local charities and encouraged development in its community by investing in infrastructure. He said some communities had hosted these private facilities for a decade and reported minimal impact on public resources like law enforcement and hospitals.
And he got to see the conditions with his own eyes. Earlier this year, Anderson and others from Uinta County visited a CoreCivic facility in California. There, he saw detainees receiving access to healthcare, dental care, immigration lawyers, and legal libraries. He told WPR the next day that morale seemed high among the center’s employees.
"I learned a lot in a day, that's for sure," Anderson said.
Between the medical services and the freedom of movement within the facility he saw, Anderson said the Core Civic center was a significant step up from the jails and prisons where arrested immigrants are otherwise held.
"If I was an immigrant, I would much rather have my relative in a facility like what I saw yesterday than a county jail sharing a cell with a criminal," he said.
The trip convinced Anderson that many of his constituents raising complaints are mistaken about the reality of life in a detention center.
"Probably two out of three people, what they describe to me is what the mainstream media is portraying the facilities to be, and it's the chain-link kennels that you see, and everybody's seen those pictures, and that is not what this facility is," he said.
But Meyer is skeptical.
"When these companies take you to see the facilities, they take you to the best ones," she said. "We're not California and a state like California probably has a lot more restrictions than we do in Wyoming, so they’re going to have much better care."
Meyer also doubts the center will spur economic development. That's an issue she focused on during her time in the legislature, and something hungrily sought after in Evanston, which has long been dependent on oil and gas. In fact, opponents like Meyer say, a detention center will put a strain on local law enforcement and medical services.
"In my opinion, it's going to be costing the city and the county money to have it here," she said.
Cafe owner and pastor Pete Bass, another long-time local, knows firsthand what can go on in private prisons. He spent nearly four years of his life at a private immigration facility in Big Spring, Texas.
"Private prisons, the'’re there for one thing and one thing only: that's to make a profit," Bass said. "So they start bending the rules, taking doors off, squeezing people into a room, cutting the food budget, but then they cut the help and so pretty soon, you've got a skeleton crew of correctional officers."
And that's the most dangerous aspect, said Bass. He told the story of a prison riot he witnessed during his time behind bars.
"One day, we're standing in line, we were waiting to go to chow hall … and all of a sudden, it was like explosions going on, and then people just start clashing, but they were throwing stuff out the windows, they were throwing TVs, they were throwing microwaves, fire extinguishers … "
He said correctional officers fled from the facility and didn’t return for four to five hours.
"Meanwhile, we're in our rooms, no doors that we can shut, and we're watching these guys run up and down the halls, and they've got brooms that they've busted in half so they've got spears," he said. "Across the hall from my room, we were watching people get stabbed. I mean, the whole place was just crazy … A few months later, probably six months later, it happens again."
Bass is not opposed to cracking down on illegal immigration. In fact, he is a proud Trump supporter and would like to see continued expansion of the border wall. But his time in Texas has convinced him that private prisons are inevitably dangerous.
"It will happen," he said. "You don’t see it on the news, but this stuff goes on constantly."
The detention center in Evanston would not officially be classified as a prison. If it were, its construction would require approval from Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials. Bass, however, has no qualms about labeling the planned facility a prison …
"You can call it anything you want," he said. "If you can't go home tonight, it's prison."
… Others agree …
"It's pretty simple," said Antonio Serrano of WyoSayNo. "It's a big concrete building, surrounded by barbed wire, people are locked in cells, they're given crappy food to eat, they have a number instead of a name — that’s a prison."
WyoSayNo is a statewide advocacy group opposing the construction of the facility.
"We don't want to see families living in fear, living in the shadows more than they are now," Serrano said. "We're not about that here in Wyoming, we're better than that."
The possibility of an ICE center being built in Wyoming has brought a national issue into sharper focus for many in the state. Serrano said if the center is built, we'll see more people rounded up from Wyoming communities.
"These separations are happening," Serrano said. "All the stuff we see on the news happens here. I can't tell you how many cases where there's one parent taken and one parent left behind, and they don't know what to do or where to go from there, how to keep the family together when it’s ripped apart so suddenly."
WyoSayNo has been raising awareness about the center since its members learned of the plans. It has shared information about the incidents and conditions in other CoreCivic facilities across the country, and helped to pack commission meetings with detention center opponents. The group has even used public records requests to show that the county decided not to inform the public after the original company looking to build the facility pulled out.
Serrano believes the actions of WyoSayNo, and especially local activists, pressured MTC to back out. That belief gives him hope that CoreCivic can be pushed out too.
"People are starting to see what these places are and that we should not be having them," he said. "So, I'm hopeful that it's going to get shut down. I believe we're going to be able to stop this prison."
The county published a news release earlier this month, announcing plans to hold a public forum on the issue in early December. At that time, representatives from CoreCivic would address the public. Though the facility's construction is not a done deal, it appears for now that the project is moving forward.
An ICE representative said the bidding process for construction and maintenance of the facility is still open, meaning another company could, in principle, take the job… or it could be built in a different community.
If ICE awards the job to CoreCivic, the center could be finished and operational in Uinta County by the summer of 2022.
Edit November 23: An earlier version of this story stated Uinta County had approved the sale of 60 acres for the construction of a ICE facility. This has not occurred. The county commissioners voted to support CoreCivic's proposal to build a facility in the county, but have not approved the sale of any county land.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Jeff Victor, at email@example.com.