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A Wyoming county pursues a private immigration jail

The Wyoming Legislature has generally kept the private prison ... “We think it’s a win-win,” Murphy said. “We’re not in the real estate business.” The downside to that model, critics say, is that the county could be left owning a building ...

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If MTC receives a federal contract to build the facility, and the company develops a lease with Uinta County, then local officials will decide whether they need to seek the five elected officials’ consentWhether an ICE detainment facility falls under the private correctional facility statute could fall to the Wyoming Attorney General’s office to decide, Howieson said. Attorney General Peter Michael did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment. If the county needs permission from the state’s five elected officials, it would be seeking it during an election yearAll five elected officials’ offices come up for reelection in November. Murray, the Secretary of State and Gordon, the State Treasurer, are both considering gubernatorial campaigns, according to various media reportsGovernor Matt Mead is not eligible to run next yearBut South, the County Commission chairman, said he doesn’t believe getting official consent would be a political hurdle“I don’t see it being an issue,” he said“The whole rest of the state is in the same boat as far as economic development.” To economically depressed Evanston, MTC’s proposal promises jobs, regardless of whether the facility is called a prison or a detention center. Well paying jobs Like much of Wyoming, Evanston has been suffering from a downturn in the oil and gas industryThe MTC facility has the potential to create between 100 to 120 jobs, proponents sayThe starting salary for a correctional officer would be approximately $21 an hour, a number Murphy said was “pretty much” guaranteed for a federal contract that would be regulated by U.SDepartment of Labor rules“That’s a pretty good job in this area nowadays,” South saidPeople with just high school diplomas would be eligible for many of the jobs, he said. The programming MTC would seek to provide in the prison could also create jobs for educators and medical professionals, Murphy said. The county owns 1,000 acres east of Evanston, near Bear River State ParkMTC would lease a piece of it, and also pay property taxes to the county, South said“It’s not going to cost us,” he said, “it’s all going to be positive that way.” To build the facility, the company would most likely try to secure bonds through an economic development agency, Murphy said, and the county would own the building once the bonds are paid offThe company hadn’t settled on a source for the funds yet, he said“We think it’s a win-win,” Murphy said“We’re not in the real estate business.” The downside to that model, critics say, is that the county could be left owning a building designed for a specific purpose — holding detainees — when and if the political winds driving the need for such a facility change. Though residents and officials said the majority of the town supported the idea, the proposal was not without detractors in EvanstonKayne Pyatt spoke against it at a public meeting in MayThe town could be left with an empty prison, she told WyoFile last weekShe also doubts the jobs would benefit residents as much as the company has promised, she said. “I can’t see high school kids graduating and going out and being guards at a prison,” she said“I think (MTC) would bring in their own people.” If the company did hire locally, “I wouldn’t want my grandson working there,” she said. Another Evanston resident, Gina Morrow, said she thinks city and county officials were grasping at the first easy option, after having failed to pursue economic diversity over the yearsThere is other potential in Evanston, the fifth-generation resident said“It’s a great place to raise a family.” “I just think it’s bad advertisement for our city,” she said of the MTC facility“That’s not what Evanston’s about.” Evanston is home to Wyoming’s State Mental HospitalA reporter for the Uinta County Herald, Sheila McGuire, noted the hospital is also adjacent to Bear River State Park, on the other side from the proposed prison site“I guess our state park would be in between the state hospital and the ICE Facility,” McGuire said  The Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp remains as a reminder of Wyoming's history.Kelly Michals The “right” politics? A private prison may not be the type of economic development people hoped for in Uinta County, but it’s what’s available, said Craig Welling, a county commissioner. The opportunity has arisen in part from Utah politics, Welling saidSalt Lake City does not consider itself a “sanctuary city,” where local law enforcement is prohibited from interacting with ICEHowever, in May the city joined others to file a friend-of-the-court brief against a Trump executive order targeting sanctuary jurisdictionsSuch antipathy to a federal immigration crackdown extends to the surrounding counties, Welling said. Not so in Evanston, a fact that helped attract MTC“Our politics are right, which is probably at the top of the list at this point,” Welling said“In the Wasatch Front the politics are not friendly anymore for a facility like this.” The need for a detainment facility in the area predates the Trump administration, however, Murphy saidThe projected number of 500 beds is based on the numbers of ICE detainees held in various Utah county jails over the last ten years while awaiting hearingsThe facility would have the potential to be expanded to 1,000 beds, he said. “There’s always a risk with these facilities,” Murphy saidThe risk is that the nation’s immigration policy could change and detentions would slow — either because of decreased enforcement policies or a reformed immigration system that gives more people paths to citizenship or slows the number of people entering the country illegallyBut in this case, Murphy said he believed ICE was being “strategic” with the amount of detainment capacity it’s looking for. Pyatt, one of the local objectors, said she does not want to see Evanston profit from a wave of enforcement actions directed at immigrants in an attempt to please Trump’s populist base“I hate to see Evanston fall into a trap of negativity,” she saidThe recent ICE request for information is part of a move by the Trump administration to increase the nation’s holding capacity for immigration prisoners across the country, according to a report in USA Today. The detention facility idea reminded Pyatt of a dark chapter in Wyoming’s history, she said“We’re going back to Japanese internment stuff,” she told WyoFile“That’s what it feels like to me.” Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the War Department built an internment camp near Wyoming’s Heart Mountain for Americans of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. But the potential negatives are outweighed by the potential positives, South said“A lot of (opponents) are thinking that it’s going to be a concentration camp,” he saidHowever, the county commissioners intend to ensure the lease would be for a humane, safe facility, he saidIf the project advances, the commissioners intend to visit a similar MTC facility in California“If we see any hiccups we’ll address them,” he said. South seemed to understand some detractors’ broader objections to detentions and deportations, however, and said he is no fan of the current federal immigration system himself. “I do think that the federal government needs to make it to where these folks that are here and they’re working and they’re contributing to society and the economy, they need to make it so it’s not so damn hard for them to get their citizenship or their green card,” he said“They want nothing more than to be legalThere we go again with the federal government and the way we do things.” Andrew Graham reports for WyoFile from LaramieHe covers state government, energy and the economyReach him at 443-848-8756 or at, follow him on Twitter. 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