California Department of Insurance Cracks Down on Inhumane Conditions in Private Prisons

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By: Jennifer Wilczynski

On February 8, 2021, Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) introduced SB 334 (Durazo), the Private Detention Accountability Act. Sponsored by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, SB 334 would require all private, for-profit detention facilities and prisons located in California to provide basic health and safety standards for detainees. The bill would mandate that these detention facilities receive insurance coverage from an insurer licensed by the Department of Insurance. The facility’s insurer would then be required to ensure the facility is complying with health and safety requirements. Failure to meet the minimum state, federal, health, and safety standards may result in termination of coverage if the deficiencies are not corrected. Further, the detention facilities affected would be required to submit compliance reports to the Department of Insurance.

Private prison companies have come under scrutiny for allowing human rights abuses of detainees and for subpar conditions. According to Human Rights Watch, at least fifteen immigrants died while in custody in private California detention facilities from December 2015 to April 2017. In a February 9, 2021 press release, Commissioner Lara stated that the mandates under SB 334 “will shine a light on an industry that has profited from a broken immigration system, and it will enforce the basic dignity that every person in custody deserves.” On May 6, 2020, a person in San Diego County’s immigration custody died from COVID-19 while detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center. Since then and throughout the pandemic, the Otay Mesa Detention Center has had at least two major outbreaks and has been a hotspot for COVID-19 transmission. Commissioner Lara noted that “the pandemic has compounded the dire conditions that immigrants have faced for years in for-profit detention centers and private prisons.”

The Private Detention Accountability Act was introduced shortly after California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that under AB 32 (Bonta) (Chapter 739, Statutes of 2019), California will be phasing out private, for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers by 2028. There are five private detention facilities contracted with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement that continue to operate in California, including Adelanto, Imperial Regional, Mesa Verde, Otay Mesa, and El Centro. According to the sponsor of the bill, SB 334 would require for-profit detention facilities and prisons to adhere to the detention standards of care and confinement set forth in the facility’s contract for operations, in addition to California’s minimum jail standards and all appropriate local and state building, zoning, health, safety, and fire standards.

The bill will be heard in the Committee on Insurance on March 25, 2021.

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