Law enforcement » The new detention centers will be more like secure dorms than jails.
By Matt Canham
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 08/29/2009 08:43:03 AM MDThttp://www.sltrib.com/news/ci_13225808
Washington » The Obama administration's plan to streamline and civilize federal detention for immigration violators could have major impacts on some Utah jails and one company based in the state.
As it stands now, the government scatters tens of thousands of soon-to-be-deported detainees among 350 jails, prisons and contract facilities with little federal oversight.
But in the next three to five years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, plans to drop that number and move undocumented immigrants into their own facilities, which will resemble locked-up dorms more than prison cells. The agency will also examine alternatives, such as community supervision.
"This change marks an important step in our ongoing efforts to enforce immigration laws smartly and effectively," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who announced the policy change earlier this month.
The move may mean Weber, Washington and Utah county jails would house fewer immigrants awaiting deportation and receive less federal funding. It could also impact the business of Management & Training Corp., a Centerville-based company that runs two out-of-state ICE lockups.
But federal officials say they are months away from determining the details. What is known is that ICE wants fewer locations, but more regulations and oversight. And it plans to make the changes within its existing $3 billion detention budget.
The announcement also makes it clear that the Obama team is critical of the way detainees were treated under President George W. Bush.
In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government took a much tougher approach to immigration violators, resulting in a boom in the number of detainees. The government had to quickly negotiate deals with individual county jails and rush construction on ICE facilities, relying almost exclusively on private contractors.
Since then, investigators have uncovered shoddy and sometimes fatal medical treatment and repeated violations of federal standards for food, clothing and legal counsel at the contract facilities
At the same time, immigration law groups and civil libertarians have argued against using county jails and state prisons, saying that people held only on administrative grounds shouldn't be treated the same as hardened criminals.
In response to these criticisms, ICE Director John Morton announced the creation of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, which is in charge of designing the new civil detention system.
"This growth has presented significant challenges to a system that was not fundamentally designed to address ICE's specific detention needs," Morton said.
Reed Richards with the Utah Sheriffs' Association is surprised the federal government would move to a centralized system.
"It is very expensive to build facilities," he said.
ICE runs no detention centers in Utah. Instead it contracts with Weber, Washington and Utah counties to hold detainees, some of whom were already incarcerated for a state crime, while others are held solely on their immigration violations.
Undocumented immigrants convicted on a state charge must serve that sentence before being placed on what is called a civil detainer or ICE hold. As immigration enforcement ramped up nationwide, so did the number of detainees in county jails, including Weber. If ICE drops its county contracts, some jails would be in a bind.
"Yeah, it is going to cost them some money," Richards said.
The Weber County jail gets $55 per day for every immigrant held on an ICE detainer. And while the stay is normally short, the jail has recently averaged about 120 immigrants locked up each day.
If that trend held, it would add up to about $2.4 million per year or a tenth of the jail's budget. If ICE decides to move these detainees to their own facilities, Weber County may be forced to cut some jobs.
"It would actually have a significant impact," said Weber County Capt. Kevin Burton. "You start talking about people's employment and everything else."
That's exactly why the Washington County jail accepts only about 25 immigration violators at a any given time when they are contracted to take up to 100.
"We don't get too dependent on contract inmates because they can go away," said Washington County Chief Deputy Jake Schultz.
His facility generally is an overflow holding area when ICE has too many people locked up in Las Vegas.
Both Weber and Washington counties participate in ICE's 287(g) program that allows county corrections officers to investigate the immigration status of their inmates. They can slap ICE holds on those deemed to be undocumented.
Utah County started taking ICE detainees in the past three years and now averages about 90 per day, according to Sheriff Jim Tracy.
He says he doesn't look at it as a long-term money maker, but more a way to help an immigration system struggling to deal with the effects of stricter enforcement. Tracy said if ICE decides to end its contract with the county, which receives $61 per day per detainee, then so be it. As the county's population grows in the next few years and more criminals are locked up, his plan is to gradually reduce the immigration violators.
"We are not going to displace county prisoners for ICE people," he said.
When ICE does announce the changes, it won't completely move away from contracting with states and counties or away from its private prison contractors, such as Utah's Management & Training Corp., referred to as MTC.
"We are not talking about moving to a wholly-owned and operated government structure at this point," Morton, who leads ICE, told reporters.
In responding to the ICE directives, MTC, the nation's third largest private prison contractor, struck an upbeat tone.
"MTC is encouraged by the direction ICE appears to be taking," said Scott Marquardt, the company's president and CEO. "ICE is concerned about the quality of health care detainees receive, that detainees are treated humanely and that they have substantial opportunities for recreation and programs."
The government fast tracked the design and creation of its Willacy immigration facility in Texas in 2006, opening its doors less than a month and a half after MTC won the contract. It now has 3,000 beds, making it ICE's largest detention facility.
MTC also runs ICE's Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico that can house up to 1,086 immigration detainees.
In recent years, MTC's Willacy and Otero facilities have received deficient ratings in inspections for such things as access to a telephone, food service and environmental health. They have not had the more serious medical violations found in other contract facilities.
"MTC is prepared to make any management changes ICE officials determine to be prudent and appropriate," said Odie Washington, the company's senior vice president.