When one jail cell door closes, another opens. The Orange County Board of Supervisors will vote on adding 120 beds for immigrant detention at the Theo Lacy facility this Tuesday, two weeks before the Santa Ana jail contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expires. The proposed change to the county’s current five-year contract would bring the number of immigrants able to be detained up from 838 to 958. With a daily rate of detention at $118 per person, revenues are expected to increase by $5 million annually through July 2020.
Since 2010, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has overseen immigrants detained at Theo Lacy in Orange and James A. Musick in Irvine. That year, the Board of Supervisors approved a five-year agreement with ICE, renewing it again in 2015. After a years-long battle with activists in Santa Ana, ICE moved to end a dwindling jail contract with the city in February that offered 200 beds for immigrant detention at its peak. The agreement formally dissolves on May 24 and definitely plays into the county’s proposal next week.
“OCSD was approached by ICE on increasing the number of beds in our current lease agreement,” said OCSD spokesman Lt. Lane Lagaret. “Increasing the agreement by 120 beds will allow us to maximize revenue for the county without adding additional costs to our operation.” ICE sought the contract modification in early April. And although it calls for increased bed space and revenues, the staff report outlines no expected increase in staffing. OCSD can currently detain up to 480 immigrants at Theo Lacy and 358 at Musick with 120 beds for women. The 120 additional beds are just for the men’s only Theo Lacy facility.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to comment specifically on the impending vote, but I can tell you that assuring ICE has sufficient beds to meet its detention needs is crucial to the agency’s enforcement mission,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in an email. “Whenever possible, ICE seeks to house detainees within the geographical area of their arrest, reducing the need for transfers. The termination of our detention contract with Santa Ana city jail reduced the number of beds available to ICE locally and, as such, the agency is continuing to consider its detention options.”
ICE cited the welfare of its detainees and being responsible stewards of taxpayer funds as its twin principal concerns. But Theo Lacy hasn’t exactly enjoyed the best reputation for immigrant detention over the years.
In 2012, a Detention Watch Network report dinged the jail as one of the ten worst immigrant holding facilities in the nation. On Thanksgiving Day 2015, mostly South Asian immigrant detainees staged a hunger strike at Theo Lacy and Musick demanding an end to ICE’s indefinite detention policies. The following month, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a complaint on behalf of 10 detainees at the facility alleging physical abuse by Sheriff Hutchens’ deputies and immigrants refused meals again a year later at Theo Lacy over poor jail conditions.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General weighed in on the facility this March with a damning report. Its findings included detainees rinsing foul lunch meat before eating, bathing in moldy showers, and being held in restrictive quarters low-risk classifications—all in violation of ICE’s policies. Sheriff Hutchens defended Theo Lacy against the report, saying the media “painted a misleading ‘Shawshank-like’ picture of Orange County jail facilities.”
Hutchens acknowledged the DHS report identified legitimate issues that have been resolved while offering a point-by-point refutation of its other claims in a March press release. “I remain proud of the work the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department do to operate our custody facilities in a way that provides for the safety of both the public and inmates,” she added. The OCSD maintains it’s in compliance without any further followup actions needed.