KANKAKEE — In May, Kankakee County’s two jails set a monthly record: They received $959,000 in outside inmate bed rental money.
The previous record was set in March 2013, when they pulled in $957,000.
Nearly all of the money comes from federal agencies, with a little from other counties, such as Cook. The county gets $80 daily for each inmate from the feds and $72 from Cook.
From 2014 to 2016, bed rental revenue dropped before trending upward after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, started housing detainees in the local jails in fall 2016. Since 2004, the county has been housing federal inmates through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.
The county’s two jails have a capacity for 712 inmates. As of June 26, the two jails had a total of 617 inmates, consisting of 249 local, 212 from the Marshals Service, 142 from ICE and 14 from Cook County. About two-thirds were at the Jerome Combs Detention Center.
ICE has been the subject of controversy lately because of the Trump administration’s federal policy of separating children from parents crossing the border, which the president recently ended. Kankakee County’s jails house no one younger than 18.
The county tried for years to get ICE to send immigrant detainees to the local jails. As part of that process, the county invited Fred Tsao, a lawyer who advocates for immigrants and refugees, to tour the local facilities.
“We wanted to bring him in the loop,” Sheriff Mike Downey said. “We have not hid anything from anyone.”
In October 2016, an ICE official called Downey to say the agency desperately needed space for immigrant detainees. Within days, ICE sent 75 to the county.
Most of the county’s immigrant detainees are from Latin America, but the county has housed people from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. ICE detainees are the best-behaved among the county’s inmates, the sheriff said. Many of the immigrants are flown out of the Gary airport for deportation.
“We’re trying to get ICE to land in Kankakee,” Downey said. “If we can get certain things done at the airport, that can be a reality.”
Downey said the county makes $4.4 million in extra income per year because of the federal contracts. He’s careful not to call that money a profit, noting it is used for other government purposes.
“If we didn’t have this program, the county would have to come up with another $4.4 million,” he said. “People have various stances on this issue. But ICE is going to house these guys somewhere. One of the things people don’t understand is that we do care how people are treated here, whether they are ICE or local inmates.”
The 13-year-old Jerome Combs jail has 32,000 square feet of undeveloped space that still could house more inmates. The sheriff said he would like the federal government to help pay for finishing that part of the jail. Without such assistance, it would be unfair to put taxpayers on the hook for the project when the federal government could decide to send fewer inmates, he said.
“There are no guarantees in this business,” he said. “With no guarantees, it would be a gamble. Me personally, I don’t gamble.”
Tsao, the Chicago-based immigrant rights activist, said he has toured the local facilities twice, once since the county started detaining immigrants. He opposes the national policy of detaining people for immigration violations.
“They are being charged civilly with a civil infraction. Why should they be in jail? I fundamentally question why they should be there to begin with,” Tsao said.
He said he has no firsthand information on particular complaints about the Kankakee County facilities, “not to say they don’t exist.” But he said one problem was that loved ones cannot see immigrants face to face during visitation at the local jails, unlike other places. They speak over video.
“It can be really disconcerting to see someone over a video screen,” Tsao said.
Downey said detainees can meet with religious personnel and their lawyers face to face.
“The problem with face to face is that if we open that for everyone, that becomes a personnel issue. We don’t have the personnel to search everyone coming into a secure jail,” Downey said. “We can’t convert this facility strictly into an ICE facility.”