Wednesday, December 31, 2008

City of Immigrants Fills Jail Cells With Its Own

Our friend Tony C. from Phoenix: "Here is an article on point for your ENDGAME investigations."

The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., was built on the hope that it would revive the city’s economy.

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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Few in this threadbare little mill town gave much thought to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, the maximum-security jail beside the public ball fields at the edge of town. Even when it expanded and added barbed wire, Wyatt was just the backdrop for Little League games, its name stitched on the caps of the team it sponsored.

Then people began to disappear: the leader of a prayer group at St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church; the father of a second grader at the public charter school; a woman who mopped floors in a Providence courthouse.

After days of searching, their families found them locked up inside Wyatt — only blocks from home, but in a separate world.

Hope and Heartbreak in a Small Town
In this mostly Latino city, hardly anyone had realized that in addition to detaining the accused drug dealers and mobsters everyone heard about, the jail held hundreds of people charged with no crime — people caught in the nation’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Fewer still knew that Wyatt was a portal into an expanding network of other jails, bigger and more remote, all propelling detainees toward deportation with little chance to protes

If anything, the people of Central Falls saw Wyatt as the economic engine that city fathers had promised, a steady source of jobs and federal money to pay for services like police and fire protection. Even that, it turns out, was an illusion.

Wyatt offers a rare look into the fastest-growing, least-examined type of incarceration in America, an industry that detains half a million people a year, up from a few thousand just 15 years ago. The system operates without the rules that protect criminal suspects, and has grown up with little oversight, often in the backyards of communities desperate for any source of money and work.

Last spring, The New York Times set out to examine this small city of 19,000 and its big detention center as a microcosm of the nation’s new relationship with immigration detention, which is now sweeping up not just recent border-jumpers and convicted felons but foreign-born residents with strong ties to places like Central Falls. Wyatt, nationally accredited, clean and modern, seemed like one of the better jails in the system, a patchwork of county lockups, private prisons and federal detention centers where government investigations and the news media have recently documented substandard, sometimes lethal, conditions.

But last summer, a detainee died in Wyatt’s custody. Immigration authorities investigating the death removed all immigration detainees this month — along with the $101.76 a day the federal government paid the jail for each one. In Central Falls, where many families have members without papers, a state campaign against illegal immigrants spread fear that also took a toll: People went into hiding and businesses lost Latino customers in droves. Slowly, the city awoke to its role in the detention system, and to the pitfalls of the bargain it had struck.

In a sinking economy, immigration detention is a rare growth industry. Congress has doubled annual spending on it in the last four years, to $2.4 billion approved in October as part of $5.9 billion allotted for immigration enforcement through next September — even more than the Bush administration had requested.

Seeking a slice of that bounty, communities like Farmville, Va., and Pahrump, Nev., are signing up with developers of new detention centers. Jails from New England to New Mexico have already made the crackdown pay off — for the private companies that dominate the industry, for some investors and, at least in theory, for places like Central Falls, a city so strapped that the state pays for its schools.

Here, a specially created municipal corporation built the jail in the early 1990s to hold federal inmates, and last year more than doubled its size. As the City Council president, William Benson Jr., put it, “The more inmates they have, the more money we get.”

Yet in a community whose 1.3 square miles are said to be too small for secrets — “If you sneeze on Washington Street, someone on Pine Street says, ‘Gesundheit,’ ” Mr. Benson said — city officials, overwhelmingly non-Latino, seemed uninformed about who those inmates were. “Nobody knows exactly who’s down there,” he said. “I hear some are Arab terrorists.”

The mystery is in some ways understandable. Though immigration detainees made up one-third of the daily population and a majority of the 4,200 men and women who moved through Wyatt’s 722 beds in a year, most were from other states, and those from Rhode Island did not remain long: Immigration and Customs Enforcement typically transferred them within a week.

Some were legal immigrants who had served time for serious crimes. But increasingly they were the kind of people who in the past would not have been arrested — people without papers, similar to some of the people who play, cheer and live in Wyatt’s shadow. Sometimes the same people.

Anthony Ventetuolo Jr., one of Wyatt’s developers and now the jail’s chief executive, said that who the inmates were made no difference to the jail, which was run like a business, under strict standards. “I’m not interested in getting involved in the politics of immigration,” he said. “All we do is detain people that our clients tell us to detain.”

Swallowed by the System

Over 10 years, Maynor Canté, 26, hardly glanced at the jail he passed as he hurried between home, two jobs and St. Matthew’s Church, where he led a prayer group.

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