Economics of Immigrant Detention in R.I.

by Chris Sturr | December 29, 2008

This is a pretty horrifying piece from Saturday’s Times–excellent reporting. We covered the Rhode Island ICE raids mentioned in the article in ICE Descends on Rhode Island, and our January/February issue will include a feature article by Tom Barry on the economics of immigrant detention.

Leaning on Jail, City of Immigrants Fills Cells With Its Own
By NINA BERNSTEIN | December 27, 2008

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.—Few in this threadbare little mill town gave much thought to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, the maximum-security jail beside the public ball fields at the edge of town. Even when it expanded and added barbed wire, Wyatt was just the backdrop for Little League games, its name stitched on the caps of the team it sponsored.

Then people began to disappear: the leader of a prayer group at St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church; the father of a second grader at the public charter school; a woman who mopped floors in a Providence courthouse.

After days of searching, their families found them locked up inside Wyatt—only blocks from home, but in a separate world.

In this mostly Latino city, hardly anyone had realized that in addition to detaining the accused drug dealers and mobsters everyone heard about, the jail held hundreds of people charged with no crime—people caught in the nation’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Fewer still knew that Wyatt was a portal into an expanding network of other jails, bigger and more remote, all propelling detainees toward deportation with little chance to protest.

If anything, the people of Central Falls saw Wyatt as the economic engine that city fathers had promised, a steady source of jobs and federal money to pay for services like police and fire protection. Even that, it turns out, was an illusion.

Wyatt offers a rare look into the fastest-growing, least-examined type of incarceration in America, an industry that detains half a million people a year, up from a few thousand just 15 years ago. The system operates without the rules that protect criminal suspects, and has grown up with little oversight, often in the backyards of communities desperate for any source of money and work.

Last spring, The New York Times set out to examine this small city of 19,000 and its big detention center as a microcosm of the nation’s new relationship with immigration detention, which is now sweeping up not just recent border-jumpers and convicted felons but foreign-born residents with strong ties to places like Central Falls. Wyatt, nationally accredited, clean and modern, seemed like one of the better jails in the system, a patchwork of county lockups, private prisons and federal detention centers where government investigations and the news media have recently documented substandard, sometimes lethal, conditions.

But last summer, a detainee died in Wyatt’s custody. Immigration authorities investigating the death removed all immigration detainees this month—along with the $101.76 a day the federal government paid the jail for each one. In Central Falls, where many families have members without papers, a state campaign against illegal immigrants spread fear that also took a toll: People went into hiding and businesses lost Latino customers in droves. Slowly, the city awoke to its role in the detention system, and to the pitfalls of the bargain it had struck.

Read the rest of the article.

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