KANKAKEE — Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey’s schedule on Tuesday was unexpectedly re-arranged, thanks to the surprise visit of a Chicago congressman asking to inspect the county jail.
With politicians and media in town, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia showed up at the Jerome Combs Detention Center shortly after 9 a.m.
The Democrat’s visit follows a letter he and three other Illinois Democratic congressman sent two weeks ago expressing concern about conditions for immigrant detainees held in the jail on behalf of the federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Also signing the letter sent to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin Aleenan was Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, whose district includes Kankakee County. Garcia said the Kankakee County lockup was the closest subcontracted federal facility to his district.
In the letter, the congressmen said they were deeply concerned about reports of conditions in the county jail. Visitors, they said, describe conditions that fail to meet national detention standards for access for health services, religious observances and communication between staff and detainees.
Garcia’s aides said he showed up unannounced so he wouldn’t get a sanitized view of the jail, which has housed ICE detainees for the last three years. He came along with three Democratic state representatives from Chicago, a Cook County Board member and an immigrant rights attorney.
When Garcia arrived, Downey was at the monthly county board meeting. Informed of the congressman’s visit, the sheriff left the meeting early and was at the jail within minutes.
After the tour, Garcia said the sheriff was “welcoming.” And Fred Tsao, an attorney for the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said, “The sheriff was accommodating.”
Downey and the group toured the jail for two hours and met behind closed doors for another half hour. At times, laughter could be heard from the outside.
Media weren’t allowed to come along with the congressman, but Downey gave reporters a tour afterward. Besides the Daily Journal, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago public radio station WBEZ were represented.
During the media tour, Downey said Garcia was the first politician to show up without an appointment. He said he didn’t know why the congressman came unannounced, saying the jail’s condition would have been the same if Garcia’s visit was scheduled.
Downey described the jail’s health services to the reporters, saying the county conducts a health screening when detainees enter the facility. A dentist could be seen treating patients during the tour.
Besides the ICE detainees, the jail also houses local and U.S. Marshals Service inmates. Of the three groups, the sheriff said, the ICE detainees behave the best.
In the afternoon, Garcia, who represents a heavily Hispanic district, held a news conference outside a Kankakee restaurant. Asked whether he personally witnessed any violations of detention standards, Garcia said he would need to do further investigation and talk to ICE detainees, which he was generally not allowed to do. (He was permitted to meet face to face with two of his constituents, reportedly at their request.)
Garcia aimed much of his fire at President Donald Trump, whom he blamed for the “mass incarceration of immigrants,” many of them locked up for the smallest of infractions. He called for “dismantling and shrinking” the system of immigrant detention.
As he has said before, Downey suggested opponents of the nation’s immigration laws to lobby Washington for changes. He said the county enters contracts with the federal government to defray taxpayers’ costs for the jail and other county functions.
At just about every county board meeting, the sheriff and other officials are accused during public input of balancing the county’s budget on the backs of immigrants.
On Tuesday, 130 immigrant detainees were in the jail, Downey said. They are kept separate from other inmates.