While the nation continues to argue, debate and protest immigration policies, Clay County — population roughly 26,200 — has become a major service provider to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And as many other counties struggle with jail funding and bed capacity, Clay County’s Justice Center in Brazil, Indiana, is doing just fine financially.
Completed in 2006, the 176-bed Justice Center was overbuilt for the county of 26,000, as demonstrated by the many empty and unused beds, Clay County Sheriff Paul Harden said.
Using open bed space and an agreement to house ICE detainees, officials in Clay County say the arrangement generates upward of $1.3 million annually for its general fund, most of which county officials says goes back into jail operations.
As the only holding facility for ICE detainees in the state -- and a lead provider of transportation services to ICE -- Clay County has a unique Indiana perspective on the immigration crisis and the benefits of essentially renting bed space to the federal government.
When ICE began looking for Midwestern jails with ample space and a willingness to accept the detainees, they saw a modern facility in Clay County with open beds and an existing arrangement with the U.S. Marshals Service. It was a natural fit.
In August 2013, the Justice Center first began housing ICE detainees via an intergovernmental service agreement with the Marshals Service’s Prisoner Operations Division.
The agreement pays Clay County $55 per ICE inmate per day and transportation fees of $20 per hour per guard, as well as a mileage stipend..
Per the agreement, the jail is allowed to house an average of 65 detainees per day.
Sheriff Harden said his jail typically only has 25 to 35 detainees on a given day but the monthly average is probably closer to 65 because of frequent influxes and outflows.
Jail Commander Ryan Cannon said the averages alone don’t reflect the rapid fluctuations in daily numbers. He said center might receive as many as 90 for a single night, then have 25 for the next week, then see another large, but short term, influx.
Harden said it’s only sensible to use the available space and collect on the opportunity for the county. He said politics has nothing to do with the program and that, to his knowledge, no one from in his department has ever arrested an undocumented immigrant.
“If we can have some money coming in and not just have an empty cell, why not have the money coming in?” Harden said.
Being the only ICE detention center in the state, the Clay County Sheriff’s Department also has accepted the responsibility of transporting detainees to and from their facility.
After beginning the program, the sheriff’s office bought three 15-passenger vans that it uses to crisscross the Midwest as it fulfills its contract with ICE.
Cannon said it’s not unusual for one of Clay County’s 15 part-time drivers to make trips to Boone County, Kentucky; Oldham County, Kentucky; Pulaski County, Illinois; Kankakee County, Illinois; McHenry County, Illinois, and a number of other facilities.
But Cannon said that’s only for those currently in the state or federal system. For undocumented immigrants picked up by local or county law enforcement throughout the state, his drivers then need to either pick them up at the ICE office in Indianapolis or at the respective city or county lockup.
Harden emphasized, however, that the detainees held in Clay County usually are not simple illegal entry violator defendants; they are more often picked up for serious criminal offenses.
“Very rarely do they ever target someone that has not committed a criminal violation,” Harden said. “Now, sometimes police will be making an arrest and another individual there is found without the proper paperwork to be in the United States. Then, in that case, they may be picked up for a non-criminal offense.”
Shawn Neudauer, public affairs officer for ICE, echoed Harden’s sentiment. Neuduer said less than 10 percent of those arrested by ICE are kept in detainment and those defendants are most often held because of past criminal history, are fugitives or are aggravated felons.
The criminal offenses of those currently in the Clay County Justice Center cannot be verified, per ICE detention standards that require names and offenses blacked out on local jail logs.
Once processed by the nearest ICE office and classified into one of four risk classifications -- high, medium-high, medium-low and low -- the detainees are taken to the Justice Center.
Cannon said it’s up to ICE as to how long the prisoners will stay in Clay County. Detainees, he said, are regularly moved from one detention center to the next to accommodate available court dates, medical needs and for security.
The average stay in Clay County in 2017 was 10 days, Harden said.
“They can be here for as little as 12 hours or as long as two or four weeks,” Harden said.
“We’ve had a few stay as long as six weeks,” Cannon added. “But that’s probably the longest we’ve ever had any stay.”
Neither Harden or Cannon could cite a number as to how many detainees are held in the facility each year, but said the numbers have jumped significantly since January of 2017.
According to a study completed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, more than 1,500 detainees were housed at the Justice Center in 2015, the most recent full year on record.
Asked about that figure, Cannon said he thinks the number is much higher now, saying they’ve seen “hundreds” transferred in and out every month for the past year.
And while much of the current immigration crisis has been focused on immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America, Cannon said the jail sees people come through from all over the world.
The Justice Center regularly sees ICE detainees from a number of African and Asian nations, the Middle East and even Canada. But a vast majority are from Latin nations, Cannon said.
“We have folks in here that have had cartel ties, ISIS ties ... we get them all,” Harden said. “These aren’t your Sunday school teachers, normally.”
For its service, Clay County is reimbursed by ICE according to the service agreement. Revenues are deposited in the county’s general fund.
In the program’s first full year the county was paid $849,331 but that figure has grown and eclipsed $1.3 million in 2016.
In 2017, according to numbers provided by Clay County Auditor Jennifer Flater, the county was paid just over $1.2 million -- $925,155 for housing, $209,590 for transportation hours and $83,696.22 for transportation mileage.
The county isn’t getting rich off its agreements with the federal government, officials said. The auditor and the sheriff both said associated costs account for a large share of the income.
According to a 2017 ICE income and expenses spread sheet used by the auditor’s office and obtained via a public records request, the cost of the program was just over $1 million for the year, netting the county more than $200,000 for its general fund.
By far the biggest cost of the program is the staffing required. Harden has had to hire two more full-time jailers, two part-time jailers and a crew of part-time drivers at an annual cost of $330,085.
And while Harden acknowledged much of the cost of the drivers is recouped through contract payments specifically for drivers and mileage, Flater said the expense still takes up nearly a quarter of the income.
The employees are necessary to meet federal regulations, “not just because the sheriff wanted them,” Flater said. “And it’s not just their payroll either, you have to consider their unemployment, health insurance, PERF, FICA and all the things that go into an employee.”
The other major cost is the employment of a pair of registered nurses. Clay County contracts the work out to Quality Correctional Care at an annual cost of $217,605.
While the expenses do impact the county’s net income form its arrangement with the federal government, Harden says the program also does provide local jobs.
“We’ve got guys that are working part-time that either didn’t have a job or were looking for work and couldn’t find it,” Harden said. “I see it as putting more income into families pockets.”
But Harden warned that the plug can be pulled on the program at any minute, by either ICE or by the county, as it is not a locked-in, long-term contract.
But for the foreseeable future the program is profitable and he doesn’t see any sense in not carrying on with it.
“We’re not losing money on it,” Harden said. “That’s one of the things I said when I took office is that I didn’t want to continue in this if it was a losing proposition. I don’t see it being a losing proposition but we’re certainly not getting rich off it.
“We’ve got to keep the lights and heat on anyway. So as long as we can feed them, clothe them and take care of them, why not?”