ICE Removes Immigrant Detainees From Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's Jail

Cells inside the Pinal County Jail.
Cells inside the Pinal County Jail.
Gregory Pratt

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has removed its immigrant detainees from the Pinal County Jail, after the county and the federal government failed to come to an agreement over how much the county gets paid to house the detainees.

The end of this contract is a victory for human-rights groups that have complained about conditions at the jail for several years, and a loss for Sheriff Paul Babeu and Pinal County, which is set to lose millions of dollars from the deal's demise.

"It's a really important development," Victoria López, policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Arizona, tells New Times. "It's a win for people who have been detained at that jail and suffered the conditions there."

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The contract between ICE and Pinal County started in the mid-2000's -- before Babeu's time as sheriff -- when county leaders approved a plan to expand the jail, and housing these immigrant detainees to pay for it. The contract allowed for the county to house more than 600 detainees at a time.

The problem was, the per-inmate rate negotiated ended up a losing deal for the county. County spokesman Joe Pyritz tells us the deal has cost the county $2 to $3 million a year. County Manager Greg Stanley has likened it to Pinal County taxpayers subsidizing federal detention costs.

Meanwhile, the jail became the subject of protests and scrutiny from civil-rights groups. ICE has certain standards for such detention of detainees who are fighting civil immigration cases -- they're not supposed to be as harsh as conditions can be for criminal inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union demanded that immigrants be removed from the facility, after their investigation documented that detainees weren't allowed outside, weren't allowed contact visits with family members, and lived in dirty conditions, among other things.

In 2011, conditions at the jail were the subject of a New Times cover story, which described how immigrants sometimes lived in these conditions for years while they fought their immigration cases.

Even a month ago, around 150 inmates went on hunger strike the complain about the same conditions.

Pinal County wanted to get more money per inmate from the federal government, despite not complying with the detention standards. With no success, the county sent ICE notice back in April that it would be terminating the contract in 100 days, an option for the county outlined in the original contract. Both sides issued statements saying they hoped to work together and find an agreement.

"They have not talked to us at all," county spokesman Pyritz tells us.

Now, ICE said it has moved everyone out of Pinal County's facilities. Here's the statement ICE issued this morning:

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) values its longstanding relationship with the Pinal County Sheriff's Department and the support the Sheriff's Office and its staff have consistently provided. However, after reviewing Pinal County's request to renegotiate the detention contract, we have been unable to reach an agreement by the deadline established by the county. Pinal County has previously advised it is terminating the existing detention contract, which would require ICE to vacate the facility by July 25.

"As such, ICE has completed the transfer of the remaining immigration detainees from the Pinal County Adult Detention Center to other existing immigration detention facilities in the area. ICE is confident the agency will be able to address its current detention requirements (including the detention of priority criminal aliens) and implement the agency's ongoing civil detention reforms, by utilizing existing immigration detention bed space."

Pyritz says the contract was worth about $11 or $12 million for the county every year.

"The [county] supervisors are going to have to go back to the budget and see what the $11 million impact will be," he says. "Nothing's for certain yet."

The ACLU's López has been involved in the fight over conditions for immigrant detainees in the Pinal County Jail for a long time. She says the money isn't the only reason this contract came to an end.

"The conditions and the standards of the jail certainly play an important role in the rationale behind the termination of the contract," she says.

In addition to more money, the county was also seeking to continue its exemptions from certain federal detention standards.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

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