Suffolk County has a new agreement in place with the federal government to use part of the county jail in Riverhead to house immigrants facing deportation, records show.
The deal could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly reimbursements for the fiscally challenged county, according to its terms.
As many as 150 federal detainees — immigrants as well as individuals held on criminal offenses — could be housed in the facility, including men, women and minors, according to the agreement.
Suffolk County renting space in its jail to the federal government for immigration detentions is a new practice in recent Long Island history. Advocates for immigrant rights, already critical of the county’s existing relationship with federal immigration enforcement, said they believed the detention deal would add a financial incentive for increased cooperation at a time when President Donald Trump has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration.
For the most part, county officials did not respond to requests for comment on the agreement, so questions remain unanswered as to how the new setup is being implemented and about the logistics of housing federal immigrant detainees alongside the jail’s normal population of inmates, people held in local criminal cases. But outgoing Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said this arrangement could yield revenue for the county.
“We have a little space now, because the jail count is down,” he said, “and now we can use it to bring revenue into the county.”
Though first struck in October, the agreement was not announced and was not debated in the Suffolk County Legislature, according to one senior member of that body, Kate Browning (WF-Shirley). Its existence was revealed in filings from federal and local officials in response to lawsuits challenging the legality and constitutionality of Suffolk’s earlier dealings with detained immigrants.
According to court records obtained by Newsday, the new detention services deal is technically a reworking of an existing agreement between the Suffolk County Correctional Facility and the United States Marshals Service. Its revised version allows the federal government to use the jail at 100 Center Dr. in Riverhead, built with a capacity of 769 cells, to hold federal detainees accused of crimes as well as “individuals who are awaiting a hearing on their immigration status or deportation.” Its terms remain in effect indefinitely, “unless inactivated in writing” and with 30-day notice by either party, the records show.
The existing agreement, which dates to 1994, pertained only to “adult male Federal prisoners” and did not include the civil custody of immigrants awaiting hearings in deportation proceedings or slated to be sent back to their countries of origin.
Separately, DeMarco had agreed to honor detention requests — filed routinely by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on immigrants arrested on local criminal charges. His office would hold them for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release so that immigration enforcement agents could take them into custody pending deportation proceedings.
Usually those detainees were then transported to ICE’s contracted facilities upstate or across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Immigrants have also been held short-term at a federal facility on Varick Street in lower Manhattan.
The new detention deal, adding Riverhead to that complement of space available to ICE, specifies an allotment of beds, with 100 set aside for men, 30 for women and 20 for juveniles, according to the agreement.
The new deal significantly boosts the reimbursement rates paid by the federal government, to $200 a day for adults and $225 for children, up from the $123.86 paid under the old agreement for male criminal suspects. Hourly rates for guard and transportation costs are also being elevated.
The new agreement entered in the court record did not specify a yearly total for those costs. But if all the beds were filled under the new rate, the estimated total would amount to more than $900,000 a month in per-diem costs alone. In 2017, under the old agreement, Suffolk had received about $165,000 through October in federal detention reimbursements, according to a county source.
Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the new setup is “very troubling” and could create a monetary incentive to lock up immigrants in a cash-strapped county, which already has a history of tensions with its immigrant community.
“By them signing on to this agreement, they practically are saying that they are willing to support [the Trump] administration’s agenda of mass detention and mass deportation,” Solis said. “We’ve seen lately . . . local law enforcement being too quick to detain people and at times even ignoring or violating individuals’ basic rights.”
DeMarco said the deal had come about when the federal government asked to add ICE and the Bureau of Prisons to the existing agreement for the Suffolk jail, while at the same time increasing the reimbursement rate.
“We had no problem with that,” he said.
“I was hoping to house more federal prisoners to bring in revenue for the county.”
County Executive Steve Bellone declined to comment and County Attorney Dennis Brown did not return calls. ICE also did not respond to requests for comment, but the Marshals Service confirmed a new contract is in effect. The federal government would be able to use the jail space at its discretion, under the agreement.
Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said she was not aware of the agreement to detain immigrants.
Browning said the scope and budgetary impact of the new arrangement should be discussed with legislators “at least, if not to have an opportunity to make a decision on it, but at least to be informed about it.”
The deal’s existence surfaced in the responses of federal and county officials to two lawsuits challenging Suffolk’s year-old practice of holding immigrants already at the jail for up to 48 hours at ICE’s request.
In both cases, officials argued in federal and state courts that the new detention deal made moot any complaints about temporary detention that had prompted those lawsuits, since those immigrants would now be under federal custody.
Investigator Capt. Michael Golio, an official with the neighboring Nassau County Sheriff’s Department, said that county does not have any such contract to house federal immigrant detainees for the long term, though its jail continues to temporarily hold immigrants for up to 48 hours sought on ICE and Homeland Security detention requests.
The Suffolk detention deal, Solis and other advocates contend, could create a situation rife for trouble as the county would be responsible for the care of those immigrants in its custody and could be exposed to lawsuits.
Browning, the Suffolk legislator, said she had questions about the finances of the agreement. The costs of “housing, feeding, medical and everything” including salaries of correction officers need to be taken into account, she said, to determine if costs would be covered.
Concerns about safety, treatment and care of immigrants in immigration jails have been raised throughout the country, as the federal government uses a combination of ICE-operated processing centers; contract detention facilities run by private companies; dedicated local government facilities and hybrid government jails like Riverhead’s to house an overall head count of more than 37,000 immigrant detainees.
Nancy Hiemstra, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University who’s been researching immigration detention, said the Suffolk agreement adds to a growing national network of jail cells set aside for immigrants facing deportation, as more counties come to rely on federal detention funds to boost budgets.
“It could create incentive for the Suffolk County sheriff and police to make sure they are rounding up those immigrants,” Hiemstra said. “I find this incredibly worrisome because it’s something that has not been debated, and public comments have not been taken from anybody, while Suffolk County is reorienting how they are going to interact with immigrants.”
DeMarco, who leaves office Dec. 31, said the policies of the sheriff’s office did not change after the contract was updated.
“There’s been no difference in the sheriff office operation since this agreement was signed,” he said. “I haven’t noticed a change in the police department either.”
With David M. Schwartz