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Inside Our Supposedly "Humane" Immigrant Detention Centers

The interiors of detention centers might as well be black sites, cast off the political map except for the rare instances of abuse so egregious that they blip onto our radar.

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But as the year progressed, ICE had not produced the 400 detainees county officials expected. So most of the nearly 100 promised hires—guards, medical and support staff—hadn’t materialized and some of those who were hired in anticipation of the inflow of federal detainees were laid off. The facility wasn’t pulling in the $85 per day that ICE would have paid for each detainee and the jail was running at a loss. Worse, that meant the county was forced to pay a lot more for each of its own inmates, to make payments on the $45 million bond debt issued to build the facility.

This was 2009, a bad time for public officials in small conservative towns to look like they’d carelessly wasted money. In a public meeting on the budget, a local man piped up on the matter.

“The Tea Party is saying be prudent men,” he began, identifying his affiliation as he addressed the commissioners. “We hope and pray for the best, a lot of us are Christians and we are praying for Sheriff Dobson and the BCDC facility, we want it to be a success and we are doing all we can to ask All Mighty God to support that venture.”

A feasibility study by a private firm contracted by the county in 2007 had warned that although immigration was likely to continue and immigration enforcement was growing in intensity, the need for more detention space is ultimately vulnerable to policy shifts. “Relaxation of immigration laws could substantially reduce the workload of ICE,” the study noted.

But President Obama has come through for Baker County. The Obama administration has deported more people in each of its first three years than any previous year—almost 1.2 million in the last three years—and it needs more space to lock those people up. The detention business is now booming and the companies and counties seeking profit off its expansion are no longer worried.

In January 2010, Dobson, a tall neckless, middle-aged man, stood before the Baker County commissioners to announce progress.

“We got 98 additional ICE inmates last night,” he said.

“We are no different from all these other companies that are struggling,” said Dobson, but, he added, the county was looking at “an additional opportunity to bring overcrowding to this facility.”

In the next year, the sheriff hired a slew of new corrections officers and other staff.

Immigration detention is the most rapidly expanding segment of the American prison system. The 2012 federal appropriations bill allocated over $2 billion for detention, several million more than the year before, and since 2009, ICE has entered into agreements to build or expand at least 10 detention facilities.

Much of the growing budget for detention is paid in rent to municipal governments and to the private prison companies—the industry grosses about $5 billion annually—that operate most of the system’s nearly 34,000 detention beds.

Waiting for the Unknown

At noon, Kitching passed Winston and I off to another guard at the jail, a short man with a blond crew cut who took us to the women’s pod. “It’s a pretty good job,” he said, as the door-control room buzzed us through. “It was hard to make a living here.”

“Things are calm,” said the guard. “Except the Haitians and Cubans don’t seem to like each other. The females are like cats, scratching at each other, fighting all the time. They act like my daughters. We have to tear them off each other.”

Unlike people held on criminal charges, immigrant detainees are not afforded the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. Since deportation is not formally considered a punishment, but an administrative consequence for violating a civil law—crossing the border—they have no right to an attorney. Only 16 percent of detainees have legal representation. For most of the detained, presentations like Winston’s are the only legal advice they get; despite their designation as “illegal” in our political lexicon, in the legal system they retain few of the rights that we expect of the criminal justice system.

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