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Detainee Program Strains Va. Jail
Pr. William Cites Delays by ICE
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; A01
A highly touted partnership between the Prince William County jail and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is showing signs of strain, as crowding at the facility has hit an all-time high and federal agents are taking weeks -- not the agreed-upon 72 hours -- to pick up illegal immigrant suspects, jail officials said.
Letters sent recently by Prince William jail board Chairman Patrick J. Hurd to Julie L. Myers, head of ICE, and top officials in Prince William and Manassas said that jail workers are "at or close to their limit" as a result of new local policies that require residency checks of inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Jail employees with immigration training are working 60 hours a week, Hurd said, and the facility is spending $220,000 a month to house a growing number of inmates elsewhere in the state.
"Something's got to change," Hurd said. "We're worried about the impact on our staff."
The unanticipated expense comes as county officials wrangle over budget shortfalls, tax increases and the additional costs of tighter immigration enforcement by its police department, which, like the jail, has a partnership with ICE through a program known as 287(g).
Under the federal program, participating jurisdictions can deputize local law enforcement officials to receive training and assist ICE in processing illegal immigrants. The local officers investigate suspects who they think are illegal immigrants, working with the federal agency to increase arrests and expedite the deportation process.
The program has become popular with elected officials whose constituents have been demanding tougher action on illegal immigration. Since 2005, the number of state and local agencies participating in 287(g) nationwide has increased from four to 47, including the Prince William jail and the police departments in Prince William, Manassas and Herndon.
But cracks in the agency's partnership with the jail suggest that federal authorities are struggling to fulfill their commitments. In Prince William, ICE agents are supposed to retrieve suspected illegal immigrants from the jail within 72 hours of their scheduled release from county custody, under the agreement that went into effect in July. Instead, Hurd says, inmates are waiting as long as four weeks, and the already-crowded jail is spending $3 million a year in additional transportation and processing costs.
Hurd's calculations do not include the potential impact of the Prince William police policy implemented March 1, which directs patrol officers to investigate a crime suspect's residency status if they think the person is an illegal immigrant. People detained for traffic violations or other minor offenses might wait weeks for federal removal.
In an e-mail, ICE spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said the agency met with jail officials Thursday and pledged to beef up its commitment.
"Both parties recognized that due to the dramatic increase in the number of aliens being sent to ICE beyond the originally projected caseload, that closer coordination would be required," Fobbs said. "Both agencies will continue to work together to facilitate a more expedient way to transition aliens." The agencies will begin meeting monthly "to assess any adjustments that need to be made," she said.
Since the partnership started, the jail has processed about 13,000 suspects, superintendent Col. Peter A. Meletis said. Officers have conducted checks on 1,199 inmates, 632 of whom were wanted by ICE.
The federal agency compensates the jail for holding its suspects, but those who are also charged with state or local crimes must serve out their sentences before they can be transferred to ICE for possible deportation. Another factor driving costs is that inmates who face local charges who might have been released on bond are being held for ICE. The jail picks up the bill.
Meletis said he had not calculated what that extra cost would be. "I'm sure there are people in that category, but I don't know how many," he said.
Capacity at the facility -- due to expand by 200 beds in November-- was a problem before the ICE partnership started. The two main jail facilities are rated by the state's Board of Corrections as having space for 402 inmates, but in February, the buildings held an average of 664 inmates a day. An additional 275 inmates were sent to facilities elsewhere in Virginia at a daily cost of $38 to $50 per inmate.
The crowding has resulted in a pricey process in which inmates are juggled between facilities according to bed space, court obligations and other factors. Lawyers and inmates' families said the partnership is also allowing illegal immigrant suspects to stay in Prince William while legal residents are shipped elsewhere.
Manassas resident Angie Walls said her 23-year-old son was abruptly transferred to a facility in Staunton soon after he began serving a three-month sentence for a home burglary Feb. 28 -- and not long after she had deposited money into his commissary account at the Prince William jail. She set up an account for him in Staunton, but he was transferred back to Prince William before the money arrived. She's now trying to figure out if he'll be moved again.
"Nobody can give me an answer," she said, requesting that her son's name be withheld lest he face retaliation. "I can't wait until this is over."
In his letters to Myers of ICE, Hurd, the jail board chairman, said the agency's failure to promptly remove inmates was "unacceptable" and could no longer continue. He offered three remedies: that ICE establish a designated weekday when it will retrieve inmates, that jail workers limit residency checks to more serious criminals or that the jail disregard ICE detaining orders and release suspects after 48 hours if they have no outstanding local charges.
Meletis said that his employees have been checking everyone whom they suspect is an illegal immigrant and that they would have to get permission from the jail board to scale back that approach. But they prefer that ICE meet the terms of its agreement with the jail.
"I think they want to fix the problem," Meletis said. "They've told me they lack bed space to put people in."
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