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Defending Immigrants Partnership

Helping Defenders Effectively Represent Noncitizens

Deportation Prisons Proposed: Sheriffs Wish to Ease Strain on Local Facilities

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Deportation prisons proposed
Sheriffs wish to ease strain on local facilities
By Robert Morris -

Under a new proposal, three regional prisons would hold all of South Carolina's illegal immigrants as they await deportation, officials said, easing the burden on local jails but raising the concerns of some advocates for the poor.

Several counties in North Carolina also have been considering similar prisons.

Under South Carolina's current system, illegal immigrants who commit crimes are held in county jails while they wait for the Department of Homeland Security to transfer them to Atlanta, the closest federal immigration court. Sheriffs of some S.C. counties already complain that their jails operate every day above their capacity, and removing inmates slated for deportation to a special holding facility could help.

Drafted by the S.C. Sheriffs' Association after discussions with the governor's office and federal immigration officials, the new plan divides the state into three broad regions, and places an approximately 400-bed jail in each region.

"These locations would give us an opportunity to warehouse foreign-born illegals awaiting deportation," said Beaufort Sheriff P.J. Tanner, one of the primary designers of the plan.

The facilities, planned to be more similar to county jails than state prisons, are expected to cost $12 million to $15 million, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the sheriffs' association.

The state Department of Corrections would run them, offsetting its costs through the daily per-prisoner reimbursements from the Department of Homeland Security under what is known as the 287(g) program.

In South Carolina, only York County is now receiving those prisoner subsidies. Many other counties around the country, including Horry and Beaufort, applied for the program, but few have been granted recently, state officials said.

"Homeland Security made it known some time back that they were not going to grant any more of these special provisions," said Joel Sawyer, spokesman for the governor's office.

Federal immigration authorities indicated that a regional concept might have more success in finding federal tax dollars, leading to the sheriff's three-prison proposal.

"When the 287(g) program started, there was such an influx of people wanting to be involved in the program," said Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson. "It's easier to do it on a regional level than for each individual county to do it."

The plan would ease the burden on both county jails and state prisons, pulling out the state's estimated 400 illegal immigrants serving sentences of less than a year, Tanner said.

The idea is still in its conceptual stages and could change drastically, said Thompson, who has helped with early planning. The Sheriffs' Association sent a letter at the beginning of April to the Department of Homeland Security, Tanner said, and their approval is the next necessary step.

Officials must also figure out who will pay to build the prisons. If state money is involved, the legislature must approve it. Wording in the pending immigration bill calls for all local jails in the state to screen inmates for citizenship, but Sawyer said the prison plan could go forward even if the immigration bill does not.

"This is something that needs to happen irrespective of what happens with the state immigration bill," Sawyer said. "This is just a way to alleviate some of the overcrowding problems."

The Charlotte area has been looking for a similar solution in recent months. Mecklenburg County was under consideration for 1,500-bed facility for illegal immigrants, but federal officials then shifted their attention to Gaston County. In March, Gaston officials decided against that facility, opting to use extra room in their own proposed jail instead for the possible deportees.

Tammy Besherse, an attorney for S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center which advocates for the poor, acknowledged that some families of illegal immigrants may not like seeing their loved ones transferred to a jail several counties away for relatively minor offenses but said the state has a legal right to house inmates where it sees fit.

A larger problem, Besherse said, is that by concentrating all the immigrants in their own jails may raise the issue of "separate but equal" facilities, that are not really equal at all.

"There would be a lot of potential for the undocumented immigrants to receive substandard treatment, food, etc.," Besherse said in an e-mail. "These guards will now know for a fact the inmates aren't here legally. That could lead to abusive situations."

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