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PLN editor quoted in CA article about expansion of detention center following prisoner's death

Daily Journal, Dec. 21, 2007.
PLN editor quoted in CA article about expansion of detention center following prisoner's death - Daily Journal

Decision to Expand Detention Center Follows Man's Death

By Sandra Hernandez

Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - Days before the county Board of Supervisors approved a $10 million plan to expand the Mira Loma Detention Center, a Mexican immigrant being held at the center was killed.
Cesar Gonzales-Baeza, 35, a detainee working on a voluntary project, was electrocuted Dec. 5, when the jackhammer he was using struck a high-voltage power line. He was transferred to USC Medical Center's burn unit, where he died two days later.
On Dec. 11, less than a week after his death, county supervisors
unanimously approved a request from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's
Department to double the bed space at the Lancaster facility.
Baeza's is believed to be the first workplace-related death involving a detained immigrant, and the supervisors' quick approval of the expansion project is raising eyebrows.
Observers of the vast U.S. detention system voiced concern about the safety of detainees.
"Typically, all the deaths we know about have involved medical
issues," said Paul Wright, who runs Prison Legal News, a Vermont-based
newsletter that tracks lawsuits and deaths for inmates and their lawyers.
Baeza and another detainee were moving fence posts, as part of a
voluntary program that allows detainees to earn $1 a day or extra visiting hours in exchange for performing kitchen, janitorial or other light work.
Baeza's wife, Judith Gonzales, said authorities have provided little information about the accident.
"This has been very hard for us," Gonzalez said. "I never expected something like this to happen because he was detained."
Greg Moreno, an attorney for the family, said officials notified
relatives of the accident a day after it happened but have provided little information.
At least 70 people have died while in federal immigration custody since fiscal 2004. Three of the deaths occurred over the past five months and involved medical issues.
Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees detention, said in a written statement that Gonzalez Baeza suffered a "serious electrical shock while he was performing maintenance duties as part of a volunteer work crew."
The Sheriff's Department and the Department of Homeland Security are investigating the death, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
But Kice declined to comment on why Baeza was using a jackhammer.
The Sheriff's Department declined to comment, citing pending
investigations.
Lawmakers said they are concerned by the latest death in detention.
"I'm deeply troubled by the reported death of a detainee in ICE
custody and by the fact my office was not notified," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a San Jose Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration.
This fall the committee held a hearing on some of the recent deaths.
"While ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are not statutorily obligated to contact my office to report the death of detainees, they have assured me that they would do so," Lofgren said.
Baeza's death comes as federal officials struggle to deal with a sharp spike in the number of immigrants detained after federal officials ramped up enforcement efforts.
More than 300,000 immigrants were detained this year. And on any given day, 30,000 people are held in a network of federal detention centers, privately run facilities and local jails.
Experts say the explosive growth in the detention business has drawn many cities and counties to offer empty jail space in exchange for lucrative federal contracts.
More than half of the 30,000 immigrants in detention are held in city or county jails, said Judy Greene, a policy analyst with Justice Strategies, a New York-based nonprofit criminal justice research group.
"Everyone is trying to get one of these contracts," Greene said. "This is highly prized money. Local government can spend the revenue wherever they want."
For Los Angeles County, the Mira Loma detention facility translates into a multimillion-dollar contract.
In November, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to pay the county $51 million to house 1,400 immigrants at the Mira Loma detention facility, according to the contract obtained by the Daily Journal.
County officials charge the Department of Homeland Security $100.09 a day to house a detainee, according to the county documents.
The county, however, charges state officials $87 a day to house a prisoner in a similar facility, according to the county's chief executive office for public safety.
County officials said the county isn't earning revenue from detention.
But the contracts can result in increased staff and other
improvements.
Last week, the Board of Supervisors agreed to spend $6 million on salaries to hire 126 new deputies, nurses and other staff at Mira Loma. In addition, the board will spend $3 million on services and supplies.
"Everything the county puts into Mira Loma is offset by the revenue we get from the federal government," said Doyle Campbell, chief executive officer for the county's public safety program.
Plans to expand Mira Loma come just months after the San Pedro
detention center was shut down temporarily by federal officials.
ICE officials, however, denied it plans to expand the detention
contract at Mira Loma.
"ICE has not entered into a contract at this time to add beds at the facility," Kice said in a written statement.
"We are continually exploring detention expansion options both locally and nationally. If such an action is ultimately authorized by ICE, I expect we would make an official announcement," she said.
Like Los Angeles, other cities and local law enforcement have found renting jail space to federal immigration officials can boost local budgets.
In 2004, Bergen County, N.J., officials projected that a new federal contract to house immigration detainees would bring in $4.6 million in revenues.
And in Kansas, the director of the Shawnee County Jail said the
facility made $2 million from detention.
Civil rights groups worry that putting immigrants with no criminal history in prison can create serious problems.
"The purpose of a prison is punishment," said Tom Jawetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C.
The group is suing the federal government over medical problems at a San Diego facility.
"The purpose of pretrial civil immigration detention is simply to make sure a person is still there when you bring them to court. The places you hold immigrants should be very different from prison. But because we aren't starting from scratch and there is a financial incentive, you end up with thousands of people who are not charged with a criminal offense housed in prisons where they are naturally treated like prisoners," Jawetz said.
Groups who favor tougher immigration laws said cities and counties should be paid a little extra to house detainees.
"You need to give these local jurisdictions a reason to want to do this," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors stronger immigration enforcement. "Would localities agree to do this unless there was a little extra money? I don't think so."
But for Baeza's family, plans to expand Mira Loma seem unbelievable in light of the recent death.
"We want to know who was supervising this work and how it is that no one knew about the power line," said Moreno, the Baeza family attorney.
Baeza, a green-card holder, was detained 10 months earlier for a
traffic violation. He was detained while he appealed his case, Moreno said.
"This shouldn't have happened," Moreno said. "This is a man who should have been bonded out. He was a hardworking man, a father of two young boys. He wasn't a threat to society or anyone else. And now he is dead."


 


 

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