The Profit of Detention

By Josh White and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 5, 2008

FARMVILLE, Va. -- A clearing in the woods between this small town's water treatment plant and a metal salvage yard soon will be transformed into what could become the largest immigration detention facility in the mid-Atlantic region, a $21 million project fueled by the aggressive policies some Virginia localities have adopted toward identifying illegal immigrants and handing them over to the federal government.

The 1,040-bed facility will be unique not only because it will dwarf many of Virginia's jails but also because it is a private venture aimed at capitalizing on the massive influx of detainees into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement system over the past year. A small group of Richmond investors looks to reap millions of dollars in profit by building what has been described as the "mid-Atlantic hub" for ICE operations in a town just three hours south of the nation's capital.

The detention compound is billed as a remedy for the system that has been taking in hundreds of newly arrested immigrants but has struggled to deal with their cases efficiently. Instead of dispersing detainees to nine detention facilities across the state -- which has caused overcrowding, delays and additional taxpayer expense -- ICE is considering Farmville as a place it could centrally house detainees and possibly move regional administrative offices. The investors and Farmville leaders also hope to lure the immigration courtrooms now in Arlington County to the compound.

Although ICE has not guaranteed that even a single detainee will be sent to the facility, the investors plan to break ground Oct. 15 and believe they will have the facility filled to 85 percent of capacity a year from now as part of a contract between the town and ICE. There is room to expand the detention center to 2,500 beds.

"This will speed up the process of getting [detainees] out of the country," said investor Warren Coleman, a former Philip Morris executive who will run the facility.

Coleman and the other investors said the facility would provide much more humane treatment than detainees currently receive in Virginia, because the state's municipal jails are not designed to house noncriminal prisoners.

"If you look at the system that is used to hold these kinds of folks now, what kind of system is this? Jails," Ken Newsome, a spokesman and investor in the project, said at a public briefing in Farmville last month. "You're taking folks who aren't criminals and you're making a jail system house them. You're treating people who aren't criminals as criminals."

By moving detainees out of local jails, ICE would centralize its operations and bring uniformity to detention conditions. It also would move the detainees, and perhaps the courtrooms, to a rarely visited area at the heart of central Virginia. ICE officials said they were in a "robust dialogue" with Farmville but are waiting for the jail to develop.

"ICE has made no commitment to relocate anyone at this stage," said Marc Moore, assistant director for field operations with ICE's detention and removal program. "It's early to speculate what this facility will look like and to what extent it will allow us to consolidate and gain economies of scale."

Farmville is a small town of red-brick storefronts at a bend in the Appomattox River. Of its 7,000 residents, about 2,500 are students at Longwood University, a state school that has been a bulwark against the town's crumbling manufacturing sector. In the past few years, two of the area's largest companies have left, according to town officials, taking more than 400 jobs from a place with an annual per capita income of $13,552.

Not far from the quaint town center, where on a recent day college sorority women strolled by antiques shops and cafes, lies a faltering industrial park. The wooded clearing that could turn Farmville into the region's main deportation portal is just about a mile away as the crow flies, hidden down a road few residents would ever take.

Farmville is already Virginia's largest custodian of jailed illegal immigrants. Just outside town at nearby Piedmont Regional Jail, 300 such detainees are housed in a series of hangar-like cellblocks. Jail officials would not allow photographs or interviews with detainees, but a look inside the dormitories revealed men sleeping on triple bunk beds, watching TV, talking on pay phones and playing cards on a towel-draped table.

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