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Joanne Elgart Jennings
Joanne Elgart Jennings
ICE detainees held in rural areas, far from legal assistance
The rapid expansion of ICE detentions in Louisiana has injected depressed rural communities with a new source of income while increasing profits for private companies. With more than 51,000 migrants detained by ICE, upwards of 8,000 are being held in Louisiana jails and prisons. Joanne Elgart Jennings reports in the second of a two-part series in partnership with The New Orleans Advocate and ITVS.
As we reported last night, of the more than 51,000 migrants currently detained in the United States by Immigration & Customs Enforcement, upwards of 8,000 are held in prisons and jails in Louisiana.
In the last of our two-part report about the rapid expansion of ICE detention in Louisiana, we will hear from a local sheriff whose jail holds federal detainees.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reported this story in cooperation with the New Orleans Advocate and ITVS.
Joanne Elgart Jennings:
Jackson Parish is typical of Northern Louisiana. Rural, quiet, conservative, and close-knit. Also typical are shuttered stores, a symptom of a stagnant economy and the struggle to employ people. One reliable employer has been the Jackson Parish Correctional Center. The jail is operated by Lasalle Corrections, a local private prison company, but it's managed and under the jurisdiction of the sheriff's department. Andy Brown was elected sheriff of Jackson Parish in 2003.
Sheriff Andy Brown:
One of the things that I faced when I took over, we had a jail that was built in 1936. The conditions were horrible and I knew I had to close that jail and try to come up with something that would benefit our Parish.
So he reached out to Lasalle Corrections.
After many meetings, many discussions, a lot of negotiation, we agreed that Lasalle would come here and build this facility.
They built a jail with capacity to hold 600 inmates and later more than double that. The population of Jackson Parish is about 15,000.
So why does a parish your size need a jail so big?
Well, it necessarily did not need a jail this size, but in our negotiations with Lasalle Management, I wanted a Parish jail and one thing that I have to tell you this prison did not cost the taxpayers any money. Lasalle Management come in and built this. And you know, they're going to build it on a scale to where it fits their needs, not necessarily mine. They're in the business of making money. I'm not necessarily in the business of making money. I'm in the business of making sure this operates right and it carries on like it's supposed to.
Historically, Louisiana has been known as America's incarceration capital. Overcrowding in its prisons has led the state to rely on local sheriffs, working in partnership with for-profit companies. Together, they've built large facilities to house more than half of the state's prisoners.
The way that we pay local sheriffs is on a per diem system, which means that they're paid per head, per day, for each individual that they house.
Katie Schwartzmann is Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana.
Well, that incentivizes economically incarcerating the most people that you can and saving as much money as you can on things like services and basic provisions.
The arrangement has provided a boost to economically depressed rural communities while increasing profits for the private companies. But in 2017, Louisiana enacted prison reforms that led to a dramatic decrease in the number of state prisoners behind bars. Now, many of the cells are being used by ICE. The agency pays the Jackson Parish Sheriff's department $74 a day for each migrant detainee. That's about three times what the state pays to house someone convicted of a crime. Though the $74 does cover some added ICE requirements, including translators and additional healthcare providers, it's been a windfall here.
The per diem comes to the sheriff's office and I turn around and cut Lasalle Management a check. Then Lasalle Management pays me. They reimburse me for all the benefits for all the salaries of all these employees. Plus, I make some money off of fees and such.
And when you say you make money that you're able to finance your law enforcement operation through, through this? Or what do you mean?
I have about a $5 million budget at my sheriff's office. And this year we will probably profit $750,000 from the jail.
And Brown says there are other economic benefits.
I've been able to create over 200 jobs and it's very meaningful in our parish. And these jobs, not only the pay but they get health benefits. And so I'm proud of that fact.
What Sheriff Brown sees as a boon to the community troubles the ACLU's Katie Schwartzmann.
Our local sheriffs have figured out that they can make more money on housing ICE detainees than they can on housing, um convicted Louisiana prisoners.
So there's some people that say like you're profiting off of incarcerating people. What do you say to people who say that?
I've got mixed emotions about that. I do understand why somebody would say that. And you know again I'm not in it for the profit. I'm in it to better the area where I live.
ICE says its arrangement with Louisiana benefits federal taxpayers. Bryan Cox is acting press secretary.
The average cost of detention in ICE custody is around $126 a day. The average in Louisiana is about $65 a day.
And Cox says there's a reason ICE contracts with local sheriffs and prison companies.
If ice were to build and operate a network of detention facilities, ICE would have to staff those facilities, build those facilities. The cost to the taxpayer would be significant. With a contract arrangement that allows ICE to bring on more beds as needed, reduce beds as needed.
On the day we visited Jackson Parish Correctional Center, 972 beds were occupied by ICE detainees. We met three who each entered the U.S. at legal ports of entry and requested asylum. All are gay men from Central America. They say they were persecuted by gangs, often violently, and met with indifference by the police. Twenty-three-year-old Sergio Gomez is from El Salvador.
I've had a lot of problems with the gangs because of my sexual preference.
He's been in ICE detention for nine months, which he says is especially trying as a gay man.
It's real hard to be locked up in a dorm with a hundred men. We don't have privacy. We all take showers together. We're ashamed and embarrassed.
The ACLU's Katie Schwartzmann says what concerns her about using jails to detain migrants awaiting asylum hearings is that they're being treated as criminals.
Immigration detainees are civil detainees. They're not accused of any crime, um, they don't have a right to a lawyer in the way that somebody on the criminal side is because it's treated as a civil infraction. Now you have those civil detainee folks being housed in the exact same conditions of confinement that historically we've housed people who are convicted of criminal offenses in Louisiana.
I raised that concern with Sheriff Brown.
And I understand that and um, I still think that we're a nation of laws and we've got to we've got to protect our borders. We've got to secure our borders. I don't know that a wall is the answer, and I hate to say this, but incarceration may be.
Whatever the case, incarceration will continue to fuel the economies of towns like Sheriff Brown's if Sergio Gomez is any indication.
If you could do it again, would you still try to seek asylum?
I'd rather be locked up because I cannot return back.
You would rather be in jail here than go back home?
I'd prefer to be locked up than return back to my country.
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