Quaint and quiet, Farmville is known for Longwood University and several high-end furniture stores that draw shoppers from miles around. But the town and surrounding Prince Edward County have a history of darker things.
From 1959 to 1964, the area drew international attention for shutting down its school system rather than integrating. Today, the area is known for its public prison and a private one, tailored for undocumented immigrants.
Nestled in the wooded outskirts of town, about 60 miles southwest of Richmond, the $21 million Farmville Detention Center has signs around its perimeter banning photography. Operated by the for-profit Immigration Centers of America, the corrugated metal, barbed-wire-enclosed facility was built six years ago during the heyday of prison privatization. At the time, there was a fear that a flood of illegal immigrants would wash over Virginia and the country.
It can hold up to 642 people. Funded through a contract from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, it has been a cash cow for Farmville (population 8,216) and the rural county.
In something of a strange flashback to Virginia’s slavery past, payments (and profits) are made on a per-diem, per-head rate. Some find the idea of cashing in on the paperwork issues of new immigrants coldly jarring. Human rights groups occasionally hold protests in Farmville. Many of the detainees are Hispanics who live in Northern Virginia.
But in Farmville, the ethical dilemmas seem few. The jail supports 250 well-paying jobs and is a boon for local budgets.
Immigration Centers of America pays Farmville a dollar a day for each prisoner. That amounts to about $200,000 per year, plus $90,814.23 more in business and real estate taxes, according to Town Manager Gerald J. Spates. The town’s budget is $16.7 million. Prince Edward County’s cut totaled $76,904.75 last year, according to Assistant County Administrator Sarah Puckett. The county’s annual budget is $53 million.
The biggest beneficiary, however, is Immigration Centers of America, a private, Richmond-based company that owns and operates the prison as well as a transportation service to move detainees. Company officials did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
The company’s principals include Ken Newsome and Russell Harper, well-connected Richmond business owners who contribute generously to Republican causes. The idea of starting a private prison in the area had been around for years, “but no one liked the idea,” says Spates. Then “this issue” — immigration — came up.
Such money-making opportunities gathered steam in the waning days of the Bush administration. Congress appropriated $5.9 billion, more than President George W. Bush had asked for, to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
Plans for private immigrant jails sprang up across the country. Today about two-thirds of incarcerated immigrants are held by private jail firms, led by Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group.
The immigration-detention gravy train seems to be slowing down, however. In early April, the Farmville center held only 480 immigrants, about 75 percent of its capacity, apparently part of a national trend in immigrant detentions. Of those 480, 119 are considered serious risks. The average stay is 55 days, says ICE spokeswoman Carissa F. Cutrell.
Nationally, there has been a steady reduction in the daily population at detention centers.
The number of detainees could drop sharply if legal roadblocks are cleared for an executive order President Obama issued last year. To shake loose immigration reform, he ordered legal protection for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, many with children who are U.S. citizens.
Twenty-six states, led by Texas, won an injunction to block the order, and the government appealed. Countering them, 14 states and the District have filed an amicus brief to go forward with the order. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) joined the latter group.
Freeing Obama’s order would spell bad news for the cozy, for-profit detention arrangement in Farmville. Immigration Centers of America’s revenue would be hurt if the pool of immigrant prisoners dries up. By some accounts, 96,000 undocumented immigrants living in Virginia would no longer face incarceration.
In that case, Farmville and Prince Edward County would have to find new streams of revenue. “There’s been some talk about it, but I would imagine you would still have people coming into the country,” Spates says. He insists that a private jail is “probably a lot better” than a public one. “It’s worked out very well. We like it,” he says.
The writer blogs for Bacon’s Rebellion.