CLEARFIELD, Pa. - When the Clearfield County commissioners approved two contracts with a private prison company to open the largest immigration detention center in the Northeast, they failed to provide public notice as required by state law, depriving community members of the chance to comment on the contract. That’s the basis for a new lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on behalf of two local residents and the immigrants’ rights group Juntos.
The commissioners approved two contracts on September 28 but did not publicly post an agenda in advance of the meeting, as required by the state Sunshine Act. They only provided public notice that a meeting would be held, without offering specifics of the commissioners’ agenda.
The contract with the private prison company, GEO Group, is one of two contracts approved by the commissioners to repurpose the facility for immigration detention. The county also reached an agreement with federal Immigraton and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to detain people accused of civil immigration violations at the prison, an apparent end-run around President Biden’s campaign pledge to end private prison agreements in the federal system.
“In our democratic form of government, the public has a right to know what elected officials are doing,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The county commissioners are required by law to inform the public of their business, and they failed to do so in this instance.”
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tim Smith, who grew up in Clearfield County and maintains strong ties with local civic organizations.
“As a local resident, I expect the county commissioners to comply with the law. That’s a reasonable request,” Smith said. “The Sunshine Act requires the county to inform the public of its business so that people can comment in an open and public meeting. The county commissioners took a great deal of input from GEO and ICE but almost none from the public.
“None of these details were known or seen by the public before they decided. We now know that this is a very bad deal for the people. An open meeting will allow us to point this out."
Juntos has filed open records requests regarding the contract, but the county has failed to respond by the deadline required by state law.
Earlier this year, President Biden issued an executive order directing the Department of Justice to end contracts with private companies for criminal prison operations. Advocates, including the ACLU, Juntos, and more than 200 other organizations, have urged the administration to expand the executive order to also end contracts with private companies for civil immigration detention.
With nearly 1900 beds, Moshannon Valley will be the largest immigration detention facility in the Northeast. Advocates expect that it will be a hub for ICE’s operations in the region and possibly the entire country. Among the agency’s nationwide operations, ICE’s Philadelphia field office has one of the lowest rates of release by parole for people in detention.
“The Biden administration is handing a massive facility to a field office that is hostile to our communities,” said Erika Guadalupe Nuñez, executive director of Juntos, which opposes holding people in immigration detention while their civil immigration cases proceed. “And its operations will be run by a private company that is notorious for abuse and dehumanizing conditions.
“Immigration detention is dehumanizing, whether it's run by a government or a corporation. And it’s unnecessary. People in our communities are best served by being at home with their loved ones while their immigration cases proceed.”
The lawsuit was filed in the Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas. The local community members and Juntos are represented by Witold Walczak and Vanessa Stine of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and pro bono counsel. A copy of today’s filing can be found at aclupa.org/Moshannon.