Cash Cows

The Huddled Masses

The United States has long had a love-hate relationship with newcomers. We love calling ourselves a nation of immigrants; we enjoy strutting around the world stage, portraying the U.S. as the land where freedom reigns. But truth be told, we aren't terribly thrilled when folks from other countries want to take us up on our promises of liberty and prosperity. This love-hate relationship is playing itself out perversely in Texas, where since the passage of the1996 immigration reform bill, local officials seem to be saying, "No, we don't like immigrants, but if they can bring us some cash, bring'em on."

Housing revenue is not a new source of revenue for local jails. Before the state's expanded prison system came on line in the 1990s, many local facilities depended on renting space to the state. And jails routinely lease cells to the U.S. Marshals Service – a sizable source of revenue in and of itself. Leasing space to INS for its detainees seems a logical step to local and federal officials. According to the INS, the agency prioritizes using jails that already have existing contracts with other Department of Justice agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, and simply attaches a "rider" to the existing contract. But immigration advocates say that other federal contracts were negotiated with federal criminal prisoners in mind, not immigration detainees, and the arrangement is often inappropriate. Contracts negotiated with the INS – interagency service agreements – require services for INS detainees that are "consistent with the types and levels of services routinely afforded its own [jail] population," with no distinction made between INS detainees and local felons. "The concept that you're an immigrant and you should be punished, even if you never committed a crime, is wrong," said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Allyson Collins.

The INS says it attempts to have detainees segregated from the general jail population, a fact confirmed by the county officials interviewed, although several added that segregation is not always possible. "If we have an odd number come in, we may have to put (the INS detainee) in with local prisoners," said Bastrop County Jail Administrator Charlie Littleton.

Money-Making Deals

The INS has contracts, called interagency governmental agreements, with about 70 jails in Texas. Among the counties interviewed for this story, the revenue generated from the INS arrangement totaled between $60,000 to $6 million for the first 10 months of 1998 (see chart). Most often, this money goes into the county's General Fund, where it is used to supplement local tax dollars. The windfall profit from these contracts has resulted in stabilized or lower taxes for some counties; and enabled major capital purchases such as vehicles or communication systems in others. Several counties reported proposed or recently completed jail expansion – something some administrators like Comal County's Bill Collins say is planned at least partly with the INS detainees in mind. "We originally just wanted to build a work-release area," says Collins of the $4 million expansion that will more than double the size of his jail from 145 beds to 337 when completed in late 1999. But the county was told by the state commission on jail standards to project 20 years into the future. And for counties like Comal, that future includes increasing numbers of INS prisoners.

"The INS will take every bed we give them," said Collins, during a recent visit to the county jail in New Braunfels. "They like to use us because we're right up the road from their office in San Antonio." Besides, he says, "Comal County is in a building boom right now. We're not going to stay small. It just makes sense that we build for the future."

An ex-military officer, Collins runs a tight ship. He is extremely proud of his county jail, which appears clean and well-run. In one cell three women sit watching Roseanne, in another a prisoner talks on a pay phone on wheels pulled up to the bars, another is still nestled under blankets, trying to sleep. Down the hall, male prisoners are gathered in a large, dormitory-style room with rows of bunk beds lining the walls. Corrections officers – far more genial than one expects – proudly show off new toys like a high-tech photo/record file purchased two months ago, or kid about the wonderful prison food. "It's quiet here, huh?" Collins says proudly, as the automatic door leading to another part of the jail slowly clicks open. "Have you been in other jails? It's quieter here, isn't it?"

Comal County charges $44 a day to hold INS prisoners, an arrangement that has netted the county over $200,000 so far this year. In November alone, the jail billed INS $26,928 for housing a total of 86 prisoners. Some only stay for a day, some for weeks. In the jail's control room, a Plexiglas message board lists the name and cell blocks of every prisoner in black marker. On this day in early December, about 40 names are in green – denoting the names of the INS detainees. Most will stay a week before they are picked up and taken to another facility or deported, says Collins. But some will be there longer. Collins remembers an elderly Cuban named Pedro Bueno who was in his jail for 15 months. Like most of the INS prisoners Collins has dealt with, Bueno was a model prisoner, well-behaved and pleasant. "There are some rowdy ones, but that's the exception," Collins says. In March, the INS took Bueno away. No one knows if he was deported or simply shuffled to another local jail. "I felt sorry for the guy being stuck here so long," Collins says earnestly. "That's the longest any [INS prisoner] has been here."

Collins' sympathy is rare. To most officials, these men and women at best are criminals – well-behaved criminals, maybe – but criminals all the same. More common seems to be the sentiment of Bastrop's Charlie Littleton, who when asked whether he feels badly for Cuban prisoners who have been kept in his facility for years, responded curtly: "I don't have an opinion one way or another. My main purpose is to run a secure and safe jail regardless of if you're INS or a U.S. Marshals prisoner, or Bastrop PD's. That's my main objective." Bastrop's arrangement with the INS has brought the county more than $265,000 this year.

Is It Worth It?

In Denton, a North Texas county of 345,000 residents, an agreement with INS has brought in $2.4 million so far this year. As in Comal, Denton's jail is growing to accommodate a booming population – which will likely include more INS detainees. Capt. Bob Powell says the county is in the early stages of planning a $12 million expansion that will add 500 beds to its 857-bed facility. To Denton officials the arrangement with INS is simply good business. "Every dollar that comes in from a bed rented doesn't have to come from taxpayers," says Powell. "Let me put it this way, we're not saving money by not doing it."

Dallas County's J. Allen Clemson disputes the idea that counties like his are profiting by agreements with the INS. "It's more like recovering costs," he said, explaining that the county's prison building boom in the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in more than 8,000 beds. Without contracts with the INS and other arrangements, employees might need to be laid off, and the cost of the prison expansion would fall to the taxpayer. "It's an excellent relationship for the federal government and for the counties," said Clemson.

Allyson Collins of Human Rights Watch said most county sheriffs she interviewed for the "Locked Away" report were similarly pleased. "For the most part the county is holding the cards," she says. "They're happy. They're making money."

So perhaps Nacogdoches County Sheriff Joe Evans is a rarity: He is not exactly thrilled with the arrangement with INS, and though his county made more than $200,000 this year housing the agency's prisoners, he doesn't see money really benefiting his department since it goes into the county's General Fund. But besides the frustration over his budget and wondering where the money is going, Evans says he's not terribly fond of the INS's way of doing business. "We just know they broke the law and INS wants us to hold them," said Evans. That the agency frequently moves prisoners around with little notice is disruptive to his prison, he said, and in his experience, agency employees generally "have bad attitudes."

"I, personally, don't like working with INS," says Evans. "I keep prisoners from all over, but they're the only agency we have any problem with. Communication is horrible."

On the day Evans was interviewed in late November, the county was holding 16 INS prisoners. Evans said his facility has had as many as 50 at one time. "I don't want any more than what we've got now," said Evans, who has contracts with U.S. Marshals and other counties that raked in a total of $1.6 million this year. His department's budget is $2 million. "INS has asked us to keep more, but I say no."

Travis Co. Not a Player

Obviously, not every county in Texas has cut a deal with the INS. Travis County, for one, does not have an interservice agreement with the agency. "I know some counties use (INS detainees) as a revenue producer, but we don't have the bed space to do that," explained Shelly Hammond, paralegal with the sheriff's Internal Affairs division. Still, Travis County has made nearly $30,000 in 1998 from INS "rent." Hammond explained that if an individual with an INS hold is convicted of a crime in Travis County, he completes his sentence with the county. Then the INS is notified to pick up the person. When INS does not pick up its detainee, the meter starts running the next day.

Human Rights Violations

It's a plan with all the right political buzzwords: lower taxes, cracking down on illegal immigration, keeping prisoners behind bars. But the INS detention policy is wrought with problems. In most local jails used by the INS, the agency has only sporadic, unpredictable contact with its detainees, says Human Rights Watch. While INS enforces minimum standards in its own detention centers and privately contracted facilities, there are few standards for local jails. The result has been inconsistent, inadequate treatment for some detainees. The arrangement is troubling. The only laws or regulations regarding detention conditions for INS detainees are four minimal requirements contained in federal regulations: 24-hour supervision; compliance with safety and emergency codes; food service; and emergency medical care. There are no other laws or regulations binding on the INS regarding any other minimum standards that must be met in facilities holding INS detainees, though INS says that it is currently "revising its jail inspection standards."

During its 18-month study of local jails, Human Rights Watch visited 14 jails in seven states and interviewed more than 200 INS detainees. In Texas, Human Rights Watch visited or communicated with detainees at Denton County Jail, Liberty County Jail, Euless City Jail, Nacogdoches County Jail, Victoria County Jail, Wharton County Jail, and Dallas County Jail. Detainees often cited problems such as the denial of appropriate medical care; lack of outdoor exercise; correctional officers without language or other skills necessary to deal with an INS detainee population; the lack of law materials or other reading materials in foreign languages; excessive or inappropriate discipline; commingling with accused or criminal inmates, and isolation from family and friends through restrictive telephone, correspondence, and visitation policies. Immigration detainees, whether held in INS detention facilities or in local jails, have a right to legal counsel, yet holding them in jails makes it more difficult for them to obtain legal assistance.

When asked about the Human Rights Watch report's findings, Ray Dudley, INS spokesman in San Antonio, said hastily, "none of our jails were mentioned." But several local Texas jails were indeed sharply criticized in the report. Among the specific incidents mentioned were a report that the privately operated Liberty County Jail, managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, failed to provide detainees with basic supplies, such as shoes or undergarments, even though the company makes a profit on the facility. When county officials were recently asked about these complaints, local officials questioned their validity, offering the fact they operate according to state standards. Few were aware of the Human Rights Watch report. When asked about reports that women prisoners were denied proper shoes or underwear, Liberty spokeswoman Rae Carnes said only that CCA recently inspected its Liberty Jail and that "in order for us to get our contracts renewed, we undergo regular inspection. ... We are regularly and independently audited." When asked about INS prisoners' treatment, officials in many local jails seemed to have only this weak response: "It's better than the general population."

What to Do

INS officials seem to believe that they are at the mercy of the local jails and cannot impose any requirements upon them. But that INS argument falls flat. For the most part, the counties want these lucrative contracts just as much as INS needs them. "INS refuses to flex its muscle about these things," says Collins. "It's not in the INS's interest to force the jails to meet certain standards because they need the space."

Despite the INS plans to expand its Texas Service Processing Centers in El Paso and Port Isabel, there is little doubt that the interagency agreements with local jails will continue for the time being. Therefore, immigration and human rights advocates say, INS needs to implement comprehensive national detention standards for these contracted facilities, and enforce them. Inspections should occur regularly and Human Rights Watch recommends that an INS officer be placed in local facilities to handle detainee cases. Local jail officials should receive special training in the needs of INS detainees and asylum seekers, and reading materials – particularly legal information on immigration – should be available in the detainees' language. In addition, Human Rights Watch is calling for the Justice Department to investigate detainees' complaints of poor treatment in some local jails.

Of course, the ideal solution would be for the INS to cease housing its detainees in local jails, prisons, or any other facilities intended to hold criminal populations, opting for halfway houses or other programs that would reflect the non-criminal status of administrative detainees. But unfortunately, INS detainees are trapped during a time in the United States – and particularly in Texas – where the appearance of law-and-order toughness takes precedence over common sense and humanity. No one is saying that all INS detainees should be released tomorrow, but alternatives to detention should be explored. In Allyson Collins' words, "We're just calling for a humane public policy."

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