Essex County immigrant detention center a house of controversy
September 22, 2011
By Chris Megerian/Statehouse Bureau The Star-Ledger
NEWARK — Despite the barbed wire snaking across the top of its perimeter fence, Delaney Hall is not a traditional lock-up.
Some dorm rooms have skylights. Bookshelves line a library wall. When immigration detainees begin filling the stark-white rooms next month — thanks to the new contract between the federal government and Essex County — they will be free to walk the halls during the day.
These small comforts are part of a wide-ranging reform effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (known as ICE), which is seeking a less punitive form of incarceration for immigrant detainees. But the Newark facility, run by the company Community Education Centers and toured by The Star-Ledger last month, became the center of a controversy that pitted immigrant activists against politicians and company executives.
The battle took a distinctly New Jersey turn, with allegations that a now-canceled bidding process was stacked in favor of the politically connected company. It’s also provided a window into the raucous national debate over immigration detention.
Detention facilities create moneymaking opportunities for local governments and private firms, but advocates say they’re profiting from a flawed policy of mandatory detention for immigrants who may have only committed civil, not criminal, violations.
"There’s been no discussion that these are people," said Kathy O’Leary of Pax Christi, a Catholic social justice organization. "There’s been much discussion about the dollars and cents."
Detainees will include legal and illegal immigrants facing deportation for breaking immigration rules, such as overstaying a visa or entering the country without proper documents, or for committing nonviolent crimes. The contract with ICE, approved by the Essex freeholder board Sept. 7, will roughly double the number of detainees held in Newark, bringing the total to 1,250.
Essex County expects to earn $50 million a year and Community Education Centers gets a bigger bite of a growing market other companies have already tapped. Most detainees will be kept at the county jail and up to 450 will go to Delaney Hall, which also houses parolees and county inmates.
The five-year arrangement allows the county to act as a middleman. If the detainee is housed in the jail, the county gets the full $108-a-night payment from ICE. If the detainee goes to Delaney Hall, the county pays the company $71 a night and keeps the $37 difference. "This is a very unpleasant way of getting revenue," said Ralph Caputo, vice president of the freeholder board. "But it’s going to be helpful."
Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., once called the "Jack Welsh of correctional facilities" for his ability to turn inmates into dollars, said detainees will be a crucial source of revenue as his county wrestles with a tough economy.
"The $250 million we expect to receive over the five-year contract will significantly help reduce the financial burden on our taxpayers," he said.
DiVincenzo said the county jail and Delaney Hall would provide "modern, safe and dignified housing with access to health care and visitation."
POLICY AND PROFITS
Immigrant advocates say it’s wrong to turn faulty federal policy into a gold rush.
"They’re making money off the backs of immigrant suffering," said Amy Gottlieb, director of the Immigrant Rights Program with the American Friends Service Committee in Newark.
Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program, said too may people are being detained because of strict federal laws signed in the 1990s.
"The immigration system is detaining people that are not flight risks and are not dangers to the community," he said.
Philip Alagia, DiVincenzo’s chief of staff, said Essex County doesn’t set immigration policy and detainees have to be housed somewhere.
"If it didn’t go to Essex, right now it would be in a county in Pennsylvania," he said.
The Obama administration disappointed advocates by increasing deportations, but recently announced it would review 300,000 cases to focus on those considered a security risk. There are 33,390 detainees held by ICE on an average day this year, up from 30,295 in the 2007 fiscal year, the agency said.
The $2.6 billion detention network includes about 250 facilities. ICE also plans new operations near Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and Kansas City.
The expansion is geared toward two goals set by the Obama administration: increase capacity in urban areas so immigrants detained there aren’t shipped to rural facilities far away from their families, and reduce its reliance on local jails that rent unused beds to the federal government.
In New Jersey, which has an average of 941 detainees each day, immigration authorities use five county jails: Essex, Bergen, Monmouth, Hudson and Sussex. They also use a private facility in Elizabeth run by Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville, Tenn. company and one of ICE’s biggest contractors. Detainees housed in the Northeast spend an average of 49 days in ICE facilities, according to contract documents.
Because many detainees haven’t committed crimes, advocates say it’s wrong to incarcerate them in a criminal setting. So ICE says it’s seeking a "wholly new generation of detention facilities."
That’s where private companies like Community Education Centers step in. The West Caldwell company is better known in New Jersey for its drug rehabilitation programs and is the state Department of Corrections’ biggest contractor for halfway homes. The company, which also runs two Texas correctional facilities where ICE detainees are housed, has worked with Essex County for more than a decade.
The company has modified Delaney Hall in preparation for housing detainees. The lowest-security detainees will be sent there while those facing criminal charges will stay in the county jail. The front half will continue to house parolees and county inmates, while the back half will be for detainees. A second entrance is labeled "immigration services."
This is a second chance for the company to use Delaney Hall for detainees. In 2008, one escaped and was later recaptured in Kentucky. All 120 detainees were moved back to the county jail. Officials said security is now tighter.
But the contracting process became ensnared in controversy when critics said the county’s request for proposals was tailor-made for Delaney Hall. For example, bidders were required to already have an existing correctional facility located within 10 miles of the jail — Delaney Hall is adjacent to the jail. The company’s leader, John Clancy, has been a big-dollar donor to county and state politicians. A senior vice president, William Palatucci, is a close adviser to Gov. Chris Christie. U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) questioned whether the process was "entirely fair, open and transparent."
County officials denied any wrongdoing. Eric Shuffler, a spokesman for Clancy, said it’s not surprising Delaney Hall would be "ready to accommodate the well-known policy of the federal government."
After Clancy’s organization was the only one to bid on the contract on July 28, the county said it would restart the bidding process later this year. Delaney Hall will house detainees through Dec. 31 under an existing contract, which DiVincenzo said would save the county $600,000.
A look at ICE projects around the country shows it’s not unusual for a company to work closely with local government. Sometimes the company leads the charge to bring in detainees.
That’s what happened in Crete, Ill., about 40 miles south of Chicago. Representatives from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) called the town last year with a pitch for a new facility, saying it would bring new jobs and tax revenue to the area. Town administrator Thomas Durkin said Crete worked with the company to pitch a plan to ICE. They were tenatively selected as a site for a new facility in June.
ICE also tenatively selected Southwest Ranches, Fla., 30 miles north of Miami, for a facility. CCA owns land there and the town approved the site plan, administrator Burt Wraines said.
Nationwide, half of all ICE detainees were housed in private facilities in 2009, according to Detention Watch Network.
Ruthie Epstein, a critic of detention policies who works at Human Rights First in New York City, said Delaney Hall is better than county jails.
Said Shuffler: "We intend to exceed ICE’s standards when it comes to medical facilities, indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities, and visitation."
That does not assuage all activists. Some note the chemical smell that wafts through the surrounding industrial park. Most of all, though, they are troubled by the underlying federal policy of mandatory detention. "No matter how nice you try to spin it, you’re looking at people with civil immigration violations behind barbed wire," Gottlieb said.