Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department Generates Millions through the Incarceration of Immigrant Detainees

Families across the U.S. face separation due to more stringent enforcement of Obama era immigration policies by the Trump administration.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not have its own facility in Minnesota; therefore the agency contracts with sheriff’s offices in Sherburne, Freeborn, Carver and Nobles counties. In Minnesota, the Sherburne County jail houses more immigrant detainees than any other county facility. As a result, the housing of federal detainees and the separation of families has been tentatively lucrative for Sherburne County.   

Samantha Ibarra Sanchez is a graduating high school senior starting at Augsburg College in the fall. Growing up, her mother worked long hours and her father was not in the picture. Samantha and her brother Armando Sanchez Ibarra (23) depended on each other for support and became very close. She describes her brother Armando as, “a very kind person, a very passionate person and a very hardworking person…it hit us like a bulldozer when all this started happening.”

Moving out of the family home was the first step in a series of events that led to Armando’s incarceration and labyrinth-like journey through deportation that took him as far as South Carolina. In retrospect, Samantha now realizes that her brother had been struggling with still undiagnosed mental health issues.

On December 7, Armando walked out barefoot in a tank top in the middle of a frosty winter day. An altercation ensued when his mother tried to bring him back. Police arrived and arrested Armando under the pretext of domestic violence. Armando’s mother instead wanted him institutionalized due to his increasingly erratic behavior.

Samantha learned from his attorney that Armando began his journey at Freeborn County jail. Armando was then transferred to Sherburne County under the pretext that he would have access to better mental health facilities.

When Samantha went to Sherburne County for a video visitation, she found that he had been transferred to Columbia Regional Care Center, a private detention facility in South Carolina owned by Correct Care Recovery Solutions. The facility is notorious for lawsuits related to abuse of patients.

According to a call Samantha received from Armando after not hearing from him for over six months, he was declared stable and sent to Louisiana and then back to Sherburne. He was released on bail May 31st.. What is little-known about these experiences is how facilities like Sherburne County jail profit from its role in the system, including increasingly punitive federal immigration policies.

Justice Center Enterprise Fund

Sherburne County houses the most federal detainees among Minnesota county jails. Federal prisoners include immigrant detainees, U.S. Marshal service holds, and Bureau of Indian Affairs inmates. 

Current Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott was appointed in 2009. In an October 22, 2010 letter to the editor, Brott explains the importance of federal revenue:

“Sherburne County is in the fortunate and enviable position of bringing in a great deal of revenue through our contracts with federal agencies and other local entities. The Justice Center revenue allows Sherburne County to attain assets that it otherwise would not be able to fund or would have to fund through taxpayer dollars. This results in profit for the county.”

Federal prisoners are preferred in Sherburne County jail because they generate more revenue for the jail. This is because they generate a higher per diem per inmate rate from federal budgets; at least $88 dollars compared to the Minnesota Department of Correction (DOC) rate of $55 dollars.

Unlike other counties that house detainees, Sherburne County routes federal and state monies to the Jail Center Enterprise Fund. The 2016 Sherburne County Popular Annual Financial Report explains:

“The county’s Justice Center Enterprise Fund operates like a business, supporting itself with charges for services. The principal operating revenues of the Justice Center Enterprise Fund are charges for services to house inmates. Operating expenses included the cost of staffing, administrative expenses, and depreciation.”

Brott explained that enterprise funds have, “traditionally never gone into the general fund.” Brott further explained that in some cases the funds are used for, “capital improvements to offset taxpayer expenses.” Specifically, of the $60 million earmarked for a recent courthouse expansion, $4.5 million came from the enterprise fund.

However, according to a complaint filed with the Bureau of Mediation Services in fall 2014, the Sherburne County Law Enforcement Labor Service argued that the Enterprise Fund is being used to keep money out of the general budget and therefore restrict their wages. The Union’s complaint argued that,

“…the county has an Enterprise fund used to account for the operation and insurance of the Justice Center jail facility. This facility, resulting in a profit of over $1.4 million in 2013…has a fund balance in excess of $27.6 million.”

The Bureau of Mediation Services sided with the county, arguing that the county should not use one-time dollars to fund employee raises.

Revenue Fluctuations

As the deportation regime expanded under the Obama administration, so did revenue for Sherburne County jail. However, the revenue scheme is not consistent and can fluctuate unexpectedly. Since a high point in revenue in 2010, Sherburne County jail revenue declined until a recent uptick occurred due to the Trump administration’s policies on immigration. The increase is due to both harsher enforcement policies and longer time in detention campared to Obama era enforcement practices.

In 2011, a decline in revenue meant layoffs. As reported by St. Cloud Radio station WJON AM 1240, the Sherburne county sheriff’s office laid off 17 employees.

MinnPost Reported that in fall 2013, ICE released thousands of undocumented immigrants from detention centers including those in Minnesota, citing $300 million that an impending sequester would strip from its agency budget. ICE detainee decline led to a $1.1 million shortfall for Ramsey county in 2013 alone.

The 2016 Sherburne County Popular Annual Financial Report noted that,

“For 2016, the Justice Center Enterprise Fund reported total revenues of $15,129,654 and total expense of $16,225,115, which results in an operating loss of $1,095,461.”

While Brott was unable to recall what caused the specific operating loss mentioned, he did explain that, “if there was a revenue loss, it would just be absorbed into the fund balance.”

Privatized Health Care Effects Inmates in Sherburne County Jail

In Minnesota, there are no private detention facilities. However, many of the services provided f in custody are privatized. These include: phone systems, food service, and healthcare.

Sherburne County jail privatized medical services under the leadership of Sheriff Bruce Anderson by tapping his old friend Dr. Todd Leonard. A November 1, 2016, Duluth Tribune News article explains that in 2006, Sheriff Anderson urged his friend Dr. Todd Leonard to consider providing inmate care. Dr. Leonard himself explained that Anderson believed that no matter what, the county would save money by using a private provider. In the same article, Leonard declared that it had been a profitable business.

On May 14, 2011 Leonard was sanctioned by the Minnesota Medical Board.  Records indicate that between 2001–2006, Leonard, “prescribed excessive quantities of pain medications to a patient and exhibited unprofessional boundaries.” As the investigation continued it was also found that,

“Respondent [Leonard] often failed to document a diagnosis, adequate patient history, or a rationale for prescribed medications. On multiple occasions, Respondent prescribed controlled substances for his patients but failed to adequately document the specific name of the medication, authorized quantity, or the strength of the medication in the clinic record.”

He was ordered to pay $11,743.30 and participate in series of reviews and restrictions. His license restrictions were lifted in August, 2011, after he completed courses in chronic pain management, records management, and professional boundaries.

Leonard’s MEnD Correctional Care has also run into controversy over psychiatric services. MEnd argues that it can provide better services at lower rates. In a June 13, 2017 proposal to Roseau County, MEnd emphasized their use of “mental health telemedicine” as a primary tool for assessment and suicide prevention.

However, a past case in Mille Lacs County Jail questions the use and efficacy of telemedicine. On November 26, 2013, a $200,000 settlement was approved for the family of Josh Holscher over his death in custody in 2010.  According to a December 4, 2013 article in the Mle Messenger, “Between 2002 and 2010, the jail had two suicides and seven attempts. Five of the inmates who attempted suicide had documented mental illnesses, but only one was placed on a medical hold and evaluated.” The article further explains that the nurse who failed to screen Holscher was a MEnd employee who had been working at the jail.

According to the judge in the Mille Lacs case, it appeared that the suicides were rooted in neglect attributed to health care provider MEnD. The number of suicide attempts and suicides in this case are rare for Minnesota jails, particularly one so small. MEnD’s track record suggests that less is spent on healthcare, increasing profits for the Sherburne County jail but resulting in inferior and thus more dangerous service.

ICE has Plans to Expand Capacity in the Midwest

The Trump administration has sustained the core components of the Obama deportation regime while increasing not only the volume of arrests, but also the amount of time detained. More detainees means more revenue for Sherburne County Jail until the facility runs out of capacity.  

In October 2017, as a response to growing interior deportations – that is deportations from deeper inside the U.S. – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) quietly released a,

“Request for Information (RFI) to identify multiple possible detention sites to hold criminal aliens and other immigration violators in support of its public safety mission under the authority of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as amended. These sites will be located in the greater Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul, and Salt Lake City area.”

Documents obtained in May 2018 by the National Immigrant Justice Center reveal that Sherburne County has submitted a plan to expand beds: “Existing Shared Facility with 300 ICE beds available by January 2018 (new construction could accommodate another 200 ICE beds, to a total of 500 beds).” According to Brott, they have not heard from ICE or DHS as to next steps and therefore have not made any plans.

The other three RFI submissions came from the private prison contractors Management and Training Corp, CoreCivic, and Immigration Centers of America.

If the plans proceed, between 10,000 and 30,000 beds will be added to the deportation regime in predominantly Midwest cities, a systemic change that will further separate families and destabilize communities. Separation takes a heavy toll on the families of immigrants while rewarding institutions like Sherburne County jail by incentivizing increasingly stringent incarceration policies for immigrants nationwide.

Samantha struggled without her brother; “It’s been hard not seeing him because sometimes he would just call me up after school and say, ‘hey, wait for me after school, I’m going to pick you up and let’s go out to eat or see a movie’, and it’s hard not doing that anymore and not having quality time with my sibling.”

Filiberto Nolasco Gomez is a former union organizer and former editor of Minneapolis based Workday Minnesota, the first online labor news publication in the state. Filiberto focused on longform and investigative journalism. He has covered topics including prison labor, labor trafficking, and union fights in the Twin Cities.

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