The entrance to the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, July 28, 2017. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)
Federal immigration officials are terminating their detention contract with a Northern California county jail, the last public facility in the state to hold immigrants fighting deportation, KQED has learned. The news comes after years of public outcry over substandard and dangerous conditions in the facility.
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday the agency has provided the Yuba County Jail in Marysville 60 days' notice and will terminate the $8.7 million-a-year contract on Feb. 8.
“It’s in the agency’s best interest to terminate agreements with an operationally unnecessary facility and utilize taxpayer resources more efficiently by housing noncitizens at other locations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
ICE is currently holding just four people at the jail, though it is paying for a nightly minimum of 150 beds. For two months in 2021, no ICE detainees were housed there.
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San José) applauded the news, saying, “ICE has made the proper decision to terminate its contract with the Yuba County Jail. The facility consistently failed to meet ICE’s own detention standards (PDF) and was a waste of federal funds.”
Lofgren was one of 24 California Democratic members of Congress who sent a letter to ICE last year calling on the agency to stop using Yuba and two privately run detention facilities in the state.
The letter read, in part: “Those detained at Yuba have experienced a lack of medical care, broken hygiene facilities, unsanitary conditions including mold and insects, spoiled food, and excessive use of solitary confinement, leading to repeat protests and hunger strikes, when formal complaints were mishandled. In July 2020, guards retaliated against two men peacefully protesting poor conditions related to COVID-19 by ripping up their mattresses and denying them access to phone calls, mail, and soap.”
The Yuba County Jail has been under the supervision of a federal judge since 1979, in a consent decree (PDF) requiring the facility to correct deficiencies in medical and mental health care and access to exercise and recreation.
“I'm overwhelmed with joy and a lot of emotion,” said Edwin Carmona-Cruz of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. “This is really years in the making.”
Carmona-Cruz, whose group is part of the Yuba Liberation Coalition, credited the courage of detained immigrants who waged hunger strikes and spoke out about medical neglect and other dangers.
“This also reminds me of all of the people that we fought to get out,” he said. “This victory is really for them, because they came out publicly about the conditions inside, risking retaliation.”
Yuba County, meanwhile, will lose a multimillion-dollar revenue stream from the ICE contract, which dates back to 1994. It has ensured ICE a “guaranteed minimum” of 150 beds at all times, at the rate of $158.13 a day per bed, regardless of whether or not they are occupied, according to an April 28, 2020, contract modification (PDF) between ICE and the county.
“Before COVID restrictions, our jail averaged close to 175 detainees,” said Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson in a statement Friday. “That number has gradually decreased and it’s understandable that it no longer fiscally makes sense for ICE to continue the contract.”
Under President Joe Biden, the Department of Homeland Security has discontinued use of several other ICE detention facilities, including ones in Massachusetts, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Most recently, ICE announced it is terminating its contract with the Berks County immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania, effective at the end of January.
ICE has adopted wider use of so-called “alternatives to detention,” including GPS ankle monitors, under the Biden administration, but roughly 30,000 people are currently in ICE custody.
In California all the remaining ICE detention facilities are operated by large private prison companies. They include the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and the Adelanto facility in San Bernardino County, which Lofgren and other members of Congress flagged in a letter to DHS last year for “dire conditions.” And they include the Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex facilities, which were the subject of another letter from Democratic members to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in September, raising alarm about “abusive and retaliatory” treatment of detainees. That letter cited KQED’s reporting on a labor strike by detained immigrants.
In its statement on the contract termination with Yuba County, ICE said it “works to ensure an appropriate detention footprint and will continue to evaluate the operation of each of its facilities to ensure its resources are effectively utilized.”
Advocates, meanwhile, insist ICE should not be locking up any immigrants going through deportation proceedings. ICE detention is not a punishment for a crime, it’s a form of civil detention, though it commonly feels punitive for those incarcerated.
“People who are fighting immigration cases don't need to be detained. There is absolutely no reason,” said Carmona-Cruz. “People fight their cases in the community with their families every single day without having to be in detention.”
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