Growth industry: INS inmates

Low risk: County jails making money by taking short-term federal prisoners in immigration cases.

February 23, 1999

HOLDING immigration law violators is a growth industry for county jails. Nationwide, about 8,000 detainees are held in local detention centers under contracts with the Immigration and Naturalization Service; about the same number are held in federal facilities.

The INS prisoners have a short average stay, five weeks, and typically require no increase in staff to oversee them. Walk-offs are rare. They are not violent offenders. Their detention, paid for by INS, can produce welcome small windfalls for local jails.

Dorchester County has been taking immigration detainees since 1993. Howard County accepts up to 40 detainees at a time under an INS agreement. So do Wicomico and St. Mary's counties.

Carroll County hopes to become the fifth Maryland county to hold INS inmates. A 100-bed addition to the county detention center will open this year, and the sheriff has signed a letter of intent with the INS to fill most empty slots with immigration violators, at an expected fee of about $70 a day.

The long-awaited jail addition was planned to handle crowding of current detention cells. But the addition will have empty beds for some time, before the local inmate population rises.

A contract with INS could net Carroll more than $300,000 a year, Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning calculates. Money would go to the county treasury; the sheriff's budget would not add any jobs.

Changes in immigration law have caused the number of detainees to treble in this decade.

Among the 475 local jails across the country that hold INS detainees, few have reported problems. INS has telephone conference-call interpreters to bridge language barriers.

Immigration detainee assignments are controlled so that local jails are not pushed beyond capacity, wardens say. It's an efficient, low-risk use of jails that benefits both counties and the immigration service.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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