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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 07/20/2010

Questions about a private jail for immigrants

By Peter Galuszka

On Sunday, The Post story "Immigrant detainees bound for Va. center" described how a $21 million, privately run center for illegal immigrants is due to open soon in the small Central Virginia town of Farmville, about 190 miles southwest of Washington. The private jail will house 584 immigrant detainees and eventually grow to 1,000 inmates with criminal records, some of whom will have been snagged by the new federal "Secure Communities" program.

I have done substantial reporting on this project, and aspects of the plan continue to raise unsettling issues:

  • How serious do the crimes need to be for inclusion in the Secure Communities program? Are we talking murder or loitering? The Web site of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency states that the program uses biometrics to identify those being held for immigration documentation issues who might also have serious criminal records. The system is supposed to flag only those convicted of serious felonies, but since 2008 it has been used to deport thousands of undocumented workers for minor transgressions such as gambling.

  • The ghost of one dead immigrant hangs over the Farmville jail. In 2008, a German man named Guido R. Newbrough, who had lived most of his life in the United States and resided in Northern Virginia, was picked up in a sweep of immigrants previously convicted of sex crimes. (The well-publicized effort was organized by then-attorney general Robert F. McDonnell.) After his 2002 sexual battery conviction, Newbrough served his sentence and underwent therapy, but he was arrested in the sweep nonetheless. He died in a state detention jail in Farmville in November 2008 of a heart ailment after complaining to guards of pain. Fellow detainees say he was thrown to the ground and placed in isolation before his death. The new private jail plans to hire some of its workers from the same state detention facility.

  • The Immigration Company of America, which is building and will operate the depot, has no experience running prisons. The firm has operated a taxi service to haul detained immigrants from jail to court for several years. ICA's executives include Richmond businessmen Ken Newsome, Warren Coleman and Russell Harper. Newsome is a prominent contributor to Republican political causes and was a major contributor to former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore. When I wrote about ICA in September, its executives would not talk to me, referring my inquiry instead to Farmville Town Manager Gerald J. Spates -- an unusual way of handling public scrutiny, to say the least. Furthermore, the ICA alien depot has been on shaky financial ground. A year ago, banks declined to finance it, and the firm has gotten funding from the public in the form of money received by Virginia in a 1998 settlement with four major tobacco companies.

The Post's story does not probe terribly deeply into these issues, and readers may come away convinced by arguments that such private jails are needed because of an expected glut of illegal immigrants who are "criminals," thanks to the likewise underreported-on Secure Communities program. Such beliefs can only fuel the arguments of the anti-immigrant lobby. As some of the activists quoted in the article note, many of the "criminals" might be busboys, not gang members. Their "crime" might be drinking a can of beer in public, not rape.

What Virginia and the United States need is comprehensive immigration reform, not "private" prisons built partly with public money by politically connected businessmen who have never run a jail before.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuszka  | July 20, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., D.C. politics, HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, crime, economy, police, race  
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