Detention Center: an inside look

Published 9:32 am Thursday, December 5, 2019

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On Nov. 12 The Dispatch was invited on a tour of the Immigration Centers of America (ICA) Farmville Detention Center. The tour served as an inside look of the day-to-day operations of the facility.

On its website, the detention center states that its mission is to “provide a safe, humane and appropriately secure civil detention environment that offers an appealing alternative to the standard method of detention for federal immigrants while they navigate the immigration process.”

The facility, according to Farmville Detention Center Director Jeff Crawford, contains enough beds to house up to 736 detainees, although the number fluctuates from day to day. 576 individuals were being housed at the facility on Nov. 12, falling from a headcount of 650 the week prior. Detainees are all male and range in age with an average age of mid-30s. A typical day shift includes 28 officers on duty, and a night shift sees an average of 25 officers. The detention center as a whole has approximately 180 employees.

Inside the facility is a central control center, which Crawford describes as his biggest single asset. Individuals operating the control center can control doors and screens, answer phones, move cameras and survey the entire detention center. According to Crawford, there are no places in the facility in which detainees have access that do not have video surveillance.

Beyond the central control center is a “court” room containing four cells in which detainees can attend Detainees receive four hours of outdoor recreation time per day, and the facility has four outdoor recreation pens that can have up to 100 people in each pen. There is also an indoor recreation building similar to a gym that detainees can use when the weather is poor and have full access to throughout the night. Detainees can exercise for as long as they want during the nighttime in order to burn off steam.

Beside the indoor rec room is a multimedia room that detainees can access for two hours a day every four days. Here detainees can listen to their own personal radio station of approximately 18,000 songs, and visitors can sometimes tune into this radio in the parking lot. Once a week, individuals can use a gaming library with Xboxes and a variety of video games. Crawford remarked that he had originally bought several replacement controllers for the gaming systems, but has not had to use them as the detainees take such good care of these items.

Visitation hours at the center are from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. every day of the year. However, the facility will allow family or friends to visit at any hour of the night if notified at least 24 hours in advance. Students from Longwood University come four nights a week to teach detainees in classes such as art or English as a second language. Detainees also have access to a grievance officer.

Additionally, the facility offers classes to the detainees such as “lifestyle choices” or “anger management.” There is also an alcoholics anonymous group for detainees, although this also serves as a resource for detainees that have other addictions like drugs. Crawford stated that the facility seizes drugs from detainees inside the center around two times per year, although he has recently seen an increase in gang-affiliated drug busts. The main drugs found in the facility are marijuana and cocaine, and the center does random drug tests on both detainees and staff.

When asked if he had plans for expansion of the facility, Crawford stated that the detention center desires to build a large segregation unit. When a detainee asks to be segregated from other detainees, the facility must oblige this request in order to protect the detainee’s safety. The average stay in a segregation unit is eight days. If all segregation beds are full, however, the facility cannot accept any new detainees in any of the dormitories, regardless of whether or not new detainees may want to be segregated from others. Although the facility currently has only four official segregation beds, they would like to add 96 more, well above the industry recommendation of 10%.

Crawford reported that the facility does often have to use force on some detainees and averages 30 pepper spray uses a month. Only one detainee has died in the facility’s custody since its opening. In 2011, a young man collapsed within days of being at the detention center and was taken to a hospital where he died from liver complications due to alcohol abuse.

ICE Deputy Field Officer Lyle Boelens was also present during the tour and sat down for an interview with The Dispatch in order to highlight the purpose of ICE-contracted facilities like the Farmville Detention Center.

“We have individuals who are going through immigration proceedings or who are going to be removed in the reasonably foreseeable future, and they are detained here in order to ensure compliance,” explained Boelens. “They are not detained for punitive reasons. We detain individuals as they go through proceedings in order to remove them. If there is some indication that we are unable to execute that judge’s removal order then we will reconsider their detention. We do not keep people in detention without there being a removal goal at the end.”

Boelens stated that ICE has two major factors that they consider as to whether or not someone should be kept in detention during their removal proceedings. “That is the likelihood that they might be a flight risk; that they might abscond and not go before the judge, and then they are a threat to public safety. If they have committed serious enough crimes then they are recidivist, then we will often detain them for public safety reasons.”

Boelens explained that while the Farmville Detention Center only detains men, female detainees are kept at a second detention facility that ICE contracts with in Caroline County. There are also a few ICE family centers scattered around the nation, such as in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where families are kept together. The majority of Farmville’s detainees, Boelens highlighted, come from the countries of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The facility also tends to see a significant number of individuals from African and Asian countries.

“I think this facility is probably on the higher end in terms of offering services to the detainees here,” Boelens said in reference to Farmville’s center. “… I would say Farmville has been a leading facility nationwide in terms of providing services to detainees.”