Cross posted from the Real Cost of Prisons Weblog:
“Federal immigration officials have said they expect demand for bed space in jails around the country to increase in coming months and years, in part because of Secure Communities, a new enforcement program that has already contributed to a surge in deportations. The program, which allows federal officers to check the immigration status of everyone booked into a local or county jail, is being rolled out state by state and is expected to be in place across the country by 2013.”
Plan to Upgrade New Jersey Jail Into Model for Immigrant Detention Centers
By KIRK SEMPLE
January 27, 2011
For officials of Essex County, N.J., it promises to be a potential moneymaker in struggling Newark: a proposed upgrading and extension of the county jail so it would hold hundreds more immigrants than it does now.
For the Obama administration, the plan offers the possibility of something far more sweeping: one of the first publicly visible results of its strategy to overhaul the way the government detains immigrants accused of violating the law.
Federal officials say the county’s proposal, which they have tentatively approved, would provide a less penal setting for such detainees, with improved medical care, amenities and federal oversight — the template for a new kind of detention center they intend to create around the country by renovating existing centers, building new ones and closing others.
As the government has locked up a growing number of immigrants in recent years, it has patched together a loose network of county jails and private detention centers, some of which have come under fire for abuse, substandard living conditions and even detainee deaths.
The Newark project, officials say, would also help alleviate a shortage of beds at detention centers in the New York region that has forced the transfer of many detainees to other parts of the country, far from their families and their lawyers, and driven up expenses. The expanded detention center would hold as many as 2,750 immigrants — 1,750 more than it does now — increasing the number of detainee beds in and around the region by as much as 60 percent, federal officials said.
Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the division of the Department of Homeland Security that runs the detention system, say they have chosen Essex County’s proposal over three other submissions from the region. The deal is still subject to final approval by federal authorities; negotiations between the authorities and county officials are expected to take at least three more months.
The project is the only one under consideration in the immigrant detention network in the Northeast. Just one other program in the country is as far advanced: The immigration agency signed a contract last month with Karnes County, Tex., for a 600-bed minimum-security center to house male detainees. Federal officials have also signaled their intent to expand or build centers in or near Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco.
Immigration officials are saying little about the Newark proposal, citing the sensitivity of negotiations. But in a statement this month, the agency called the Karnes County agreement “a significant milestone” in its effort to improve the detention system.
Federal and Essex County officials would not disclose the Newark project’s projected cost; the immigration agency said the responsibility to finance it would rest with the county. In turn, the federal government would pay for each inmate housed. It currently pays the county $105 per day for each immigrant in its jail, the Essex County Correctional Facility, in an industrial section of northeast Newark.
Such arrangements have not always worked out well for local governments. In Central Falls, R.I., a for-profit detention center built by a municipal corporation has struggled financially; federal officials removed all of its immigrant detainees in 2008 after the death of a New York man who they said had been abused and denied medical care.
Moved in part by events like that, the Obama administration announced in August 2009 that it would overhaul the immigration detention system. Among other things, the plan seeks to establish more centralized authority over the system and improve living conditions by renovating centers designed for penal detention to make them more appropriate for detainees facing deportation.
To that end, federal officials said in a statement this month, the Essex County project would feature amenities including new medical facilities, ample indoor and outdoor communal areas, enhanced social programs, “easy access” to legal services and “abundant natural light.” An immigration official on the premises would provide oversight, officials said. The jail would also provide higher security for detainees considered violent or at high risk of escape.
The administration’s detention overhaul also seeks to improve the system’s efficiency by increasing the number of beds near big cities where the nation’s immigrant populations are concentrated.
Federal immigration officials have said they expect demand for bed space in jails around the country to increase in coming months and years, in part because of Secure Communities, a new enforcement program that has already contributed to a surge in deportations. The program, which allows federal officers to check the immigration status of everyone booked into a local or county jail, is being rolled out state by state and is expected to be in place across the country by 2013.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement now has space for about 33,000 detainees at a time, spread out across about 260 detention centers nationwide, down from as many as 370 before the proposed changes were announced. Immigration officials said they had closed centers that were rarely used or failed to meet the agency’s standards.
In the region overseen by the agency’s field offices in New York City, Newark and Philadelphia — an area that includes southern New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware — current demand is more than 3,400 beds per day, well over the capacity of 2,850 beds spread across 20 detention centers, federal officials said. Because of this shortfall, about 4,800 detainees are transferred out of the region every year, some sent as far away as Texas, slowing the deportation process by about two weeks in each case, officials said.
Essex County can hold up to 1,000 immigrants in its jail and in a neighboring residential building used to prepare convicts for re-entry into society, though the county usually holds fewer than half that number. The new project, county and federal officials said, would add at least 1,250 beds, and as many as 1,750, by improving those buildings and constructing another nearby.
Federal officials said that they had no immediate plans to close any detention centers in the region, but that the system would be continually evaluated as the Secure Communities program got under way throughout the country.
Some immigrant advocates and civil libertarians who have criticized the detention system said the improvements proposed for the Essex County jail were long overdue.
In April, the county’s handling of detainees was assailed in a report by three advocacy groups that examined federal detention centers in New Jersey and declared them “a complete failure.” Among other grievances, detainees in Newark complained of delays of up to two weeks to receive medical care and medicine, insufficient food served in “unsanitary conditions,” and a scarcity of soap and toilet paper. They also told of verbally abusive guards and long wait times for visitors to see detainees, said the report, by the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law.
Amy Gottlieb is the director of the Immigrant Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that collaborated on the report and provides legal representation to the jail’s detainees. She said she had not heard any complaints from the Newark jail for several months.
“But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening,” she added. “There’s always this trepidation because of the history of the facility.”