Detainees Equal Dollars

The Rise in Immigrant Incarcerations drives a prison boom

It was a shaky spring for the correctional workers of Hastings, Nebraska (pop. 24,064), as the stagnation in the nation's prison population and the increasingly high costs of incarceration jostled the sleepy town, some two hours' drive from Lincoln. On April 9, the 84 employees of the Hastings Correctional Center were told that the 186-bed facility would be closing at the end of June. State funds were scraping bottom, and the $2.5 million annual price tag for the prison was too big a burden to carry. "We really didn't know what we would do," says Jim Morgan, who had been working at HCC for 15 years and lives to this day in the house where he was born. "There aren't a lot of job opportunities out here, and most of us have homes and kids and couldn't even think about moving somewhere else." For two months, the workers scrambled, filling out applications at nearby meatpacking and cardboard-container plants and anticipating long hours in the unemployment office.

Then salvation came from, of all places, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Days after HCC closed as a state prison in June, it reopened as an INS detention center.

"It's a win-win," says Morgan. The INS is desperate for more beds for its ever expanding detainee population. And the state of Nebraska, collecting $65 per detainee per day from the INS, rakes in more than $1 million a year over and above the cost of running the place.

County jailers have long known that housing INS detainees pumps easy income into the coffers. Nearly 900 facilities around the country provide beds for the INS, and in interviews over the years, several county sheriffs and wardens have described such detainees as a "cash crop."

Passaic County Jail in New Jersey learned the lucrative lesson after 9-11, as INS transfers boosted its detainee population from 40 to 386 by December 18. The INS paid $77 per day per detainee, compared to New Jersey reimbursements of $62 for state prisoners; some $3 million in INS payments poured into Passaic last year.

Now, in places like Hastings all around the country, prisons are seeking to cut such deals on a larger scale. At the end of July the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decline in the state prison population, reversing a decade-long trend that produced a prison-building boom across America. The only incarcerated populations sustaining reliable growth now are INS detainees and federal prisoners, many of them noncitizens. Those with an interest in keeping multitudes behind bars—whether public employees working in the prisons that expanded in the '90s, or for-profit companies that have seen their stock prices plunge in the last couple of years—are coming to regard immigrants as their redeemers.

Like agriculture, restaurants, hotels, and other realms of American business, the prison-industrial complex now also looks to illegal immigrants as the most promising means of keeping them afloat. The danger, anti-prison activists say, is that the pressure to fill empty cells will add even more fuel to the demand to round up immigrants.

As for the workers in Hastings, "We're sitting back smiling," says Morgan. "Nebraska is still going through a crunch, but they can't touch us. We're all federal dollars now. Congress would have to do something very big to affect our jobs—and it's not like they're going to give amnesty to everyone."

Immigrant Incarceration Booms

Quite the contrary. The number of INS detainees—people being held administratively as they await the outcome of deportation proceedings—tripled since 1994, from an average daily population of 5532 to nearly 20,000 last year. Some have been apprehended at the border, others nabbed for staying in the country without documents, and still others have completed prison sentences for crimes that have made them deportable. On any given day, the INS holds about 4500 of them in facilities the agency runs itself, while some 2000—many of them asylum seekers—languish in private lockups under contract with the INS. Some 10,000 are farmed out to county and state prisons. For the INS, that's still not enough. The proposed $6.3 billion budget for fiscal 2003 slates more than $50 million for the "construction of detention facilities."

At the same time, the number of noncitizen inmates in federal prisons doing time for the crime of breaking immigration laws has skyrocketed as U.S. Attorneys have zealously gone after illegal border crossers they once sent right into deportation proceedings. Last week the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that the number of people prosecuted for immigration offenses in federal courts more than doubled from 1996 to 2000, growing from 6605 defendants to 15,613.

For both detainees and noncitizen inmates, the swelling numbers can be traced to the draconian 1996 reforms in immigration law, which expanded the scope of crimes considered deportable offenses, made detention mandatory for almost all people facing deportation, and increased the number of Border Patrol officers apprehending illegal entrants, especially in the Southwest. Meanwhile, changes in federal sentencing law increased the length of prison sentences for immigration offenses. Between 1986 and 2000, that average increased from 3.6 months to roughly 21 months.

Attorney Andrea Matheson, who recently finished a four-year stint as a federal public defender in Tucson, Arizona, saw hundreds of Mexicans put away in federal prisons for trying to re-enter the U.S.—whether to seek work or to reunite with their families—after having previously been tossed back across the border. She sums up how the system works: "The government spends a fortune guarding the border. Then it spends another fortune catching the people who make it across. Once it has them, it spends yet another fortune prosecuting them, including for lawyers to defend them and all the machinery of the court system. Another fortune goes to keeping them in prison. And after all this, the government puts them in deportation proceedings so the INS can spend its own fortune on sending them back. In the end, many of them just come over again."

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