Santa Clara County's lucrative jail business takes a hit

Ken McLaughlin

Posted: 12/05/2009 08:00:00 PM PST
Updated: 12/05/2009 10:23:42 PM PST

The thought of Santa Clara County building a prison in the heart of San Jose to house hundreds of state and federal prisoners and immigration detainees would never fly politically.

Not in a million years.

But in a way such a prison already exists — hidden from public view inside the county's Main Jail complex north of downtown.

In the last fiscal year, the federal and state governments paid cash-hungry Santa Clara County more than $10 million for incarcerating their prisoners, including illegal and legal immigrants from across Northern California under deportation orders. Until recently, Santa Clara County housed more immigrant detainees than any other county in the state except Los Angeles. And it's a revenue stream that even many liberal, pro-immigration officials are not interested in giving up.

But now county officials are worried that the cash cow is beginning to run dry as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sends fewer and fewer inmates here. To save money, the feds are looking for cheaper housing options — and they found one at the Yuba County Jail.

In addition to federal prisoners, Santa Clara County takes in state prisoners, as well as a handful of prisoners from other California counties. The number of state prisoners is up over last year, but not nearly enough to make up for the steep drop in ICE inmates.

And that's bad news for a county already reeling from budget cuts.

So how did these so-called revenue-generating prisoners end up here in the first place?

One reason is that Santa Clara County has one of the largest, best-run jails in the state. Through such techniques as drug diversion programs and alternative sentencing, the county has done a great job of keeping nonviolent offenders from clogging up its jails — unlike the state of California, which is under court order to relieve its overcrowded prisons.

And that means there's room at the inn.

Surprisingly, even the ICE contract has generated little political controversy in a city and county where law enforcement has policies against cooperating fully with ICE when it comes to enforcing immigration laws. But that's not to say that elected officials are blind to the irony of the county making millions housing and feeding immigrants in custody.

"We're the county of Cesar Chavez with the values of Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi — the county with the most diversity,'' said Supervisor David Cortese, a former San Jose city councilman.

"Yes,'' added Gary Graves, the county's chief operating officer, "there have been some questions from individual board members over the years,'' but the revenue-generating inmates "have become woven into the fabric of how we function. It's how we fund the jail.''

A management audit earlier this year by Harvey M. Rose Associates showed the county could save $2.75 million in expenses annually if it no longer housed federal and state prisoners. But it would have lost $13.8 million in revenue in the last fiscal year. Annual net benefit to the county: $11.1 million, representing nearly 6 percent of the corrections budget.

Figures released by ICE on Friday show that Yuba County in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 received more ICE reimbursements than Santa Clara County — $4.9 million compared with $4.6 million. The year before, Santa Clara had received almost twice as much as Yuba, located in the Central Valley north of Sacramento.

Technically, the jailed immigrants are called "detainees.'' In actuality, they're treated virtually the same as the rest of the prisoners.

Same orange jumpsuit. Same food. Same cells.

"It was hell,'' said Hassan Abpikar of San Jose, a 49-year-old native of Iran who was released a month ago after spending 16 months in ICE custody, mostly in the Santa Clara County Jail, for alleged immigration violations. "You're in a room with 24 people with two toilets and absolutely no privacy. I cried myself to sleep every night.''

For Abpikar, it was more hellish than most. One night last summer, he was knocked unconsciousness and hospitalized when a fellow inmate pummeled his head while Abpikar was doing some nighttime reading to prepare for a court appearance. The alleged assailant, an accused bank robber, wasn't a traditional county inmate, either. He was a revenue-generating inmate of the U.S. Marshals Service — which has long contracted with the county to house its prisoners.

Edward Flores, who has been chief of the Department of Correction for more than five years, acknowledged that housing federal and state prisoners makes running the 15th-largest county jail in the country, with an average inmate population of 4,500, even more complex.

"To be quite honest I'd prefer to not have federal and state prisoners and inmates from other counties,'' he said. But he and other county officials emphasize that the revenue-generating inmates — who in March accounted for nearly 10 percent of the jail population — have become an economic necessity in a world of tight county budgets.

The county, Graves said, went into the rent-a-bed business six years ago when then-chief James Babcock got creative and found a way to avoid severe cuts in the department's budget after the economy soured because of the dot-com crash and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The county had briefly experimented with housing immigration detainees in the late 1990s, but nixed the plan after the liberal board majority grew uneasy. But in 2004 Babcock resurrected that idea and took it even further by also housing more state prisoners in an in-custody drug treatment program. Those prisoners now live at the county's Elmwood jail in Milpitas.

"At the time 9/11 was still on everybody's mind,'' Flores said, helping to explain why few at the time questioned the idea of incarcerating ICE prisoners. "These were Homeland Security prisoners.''

As the idea steamrolled, the county became addicted to the additional cash.

But now a big part of that revenue source is going to Yuba County.

The reason: It's cheaper. Yuba County charges $71 a night for ICE prisoners; Santa Clara County charges $103.

A year ago, the Santa Clara County Jail had about 150 ICE inmates. On Friday it had 59.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency has "an obligation to use taxpayers' money in the most efficient way possible.''

Santa Clara County's budget gurus didn't foresee the trend. In June they budgeted $10.3 million in revenue for ICE and other federal inmates because the ICE business at the time was booming. They now expect to fall at least $1 million short — and probably much more.

That could lead to some painful cuts. When the county does its next budget review in February, Graves said, the loss in jail revenue will just be the latest in a litany of fiscal horrors.

In the last round of budget cuts, the county had to slash into alcohol and drug treatment programs.

"We have so few options,'' Graves said.

The supervisors had hoped to avoid any further cuts to such programs, knowing that they would only result in more drug addicts and alcoholics ending up in the county jail.

And the feds wouldn't be picking up the tab to jail them.