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Tom Steyer said that California has eradicated private prisons. He’s wrong.

A recently signed state law hasn’t phased out private prisons yet.

During the Democratic debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Friday, Tom Steyer claimed he got rid of private prisons in California.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer claimed during Friday night’s Democratic presidential debate that he helped eradicate private prisons in his home state of California.

But the private prison industry is still thriving there — for now.

The firm Steyer founded, Farallon Capital Management, was an early investor in private prisons and divested in 2006 only following pressure from student protesters at Yale University. Steyer, who has since expressed regret over his involvement, put out a plan for criminal justice reform that promises he’ll close private prisons nationwide. On the debate stage Friday, he claimed such facilities had already disappeared from California.

“I worked to end private prisons in California, and they’re gone,” Steyer said.

NextGen Policy, the progressive advocacy group Steyer founded, supported legislation recently signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that phases out state-level private prisons and privately run immigration detention facilities that contract with the federal government.

But it’s just not true that private prisons in California are gone. The bill doesn’t block the federal government from constructing its own detention centers in the state.

State-level private prisons won’t close overnight, either: The wind-down period runs through 2028, and California was allowed to renew its existing contracts with private prison companies — as well as sign new contracts — up until January 1 of this year. That meant the Trump administration was able to sign a flurry of new contracts with the current operators of four private detention centers before the deadline. Worth a total of around $6.5 billion, those new contracts added space for an additional 4,000 detainees in San Diego, Calexico, Adelanto, and Bakersfield.

The new California law also includes loopholes that would allow private prison companies to continue to operate in the state. As the Orange County Register reported, the law doesn’t apply to private facilities that provide “educational, vocational, medical, or other ancillary services to an inmate,” those that are leased and operated by a law enforcement agency, or those that provide “housing for state prison inmates in order to comply with the requirements of any court-ordered population cap.”

Nevertheless, Steyer didn’t face any pushback on the debate stage over his erroneous claims.

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