Crime & Justice

Santa Ana ending ICE contract means looking for money elsewhere

The majority of the inmates held at the Santa Ana city jail, which was built in the mid-1990s, are from federal agencies that the city contracts with, including about 180 immigration detainees. May 18, 2016
The majority of the inmates held at the Santa Ana city jail, which was built in the mid-1990s, are from federal agencies that the city contracts with, including about 180 immigration detainees. May 18, 2016
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Santa Ana wants to get out of the business of housing immigration detainees for the federal government but the city will need to find another way to pay off its multi-million dollar downtown jail facility.

Under pressure from Latino and transgender activists, the Santa Ana City Council voted Tuesday to allow its contract to expire in 2020 with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detainees at the city jail.

Activists had asked the city to terminate the contract by the end of the year, but the council opted for a longer exit plan. Part of the reasoning: Santa Ana still owes about $24 million to pay off its debt for building the facility and the ICE contract has provided a source of revenue the city isn't quite ready to part with.

“We’ll get there together,” said Santa Ana City Council Member David Benavides. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to be able to get there.”

That’s not soon enough for Carlos Perea, an organizer with RAZI, an Orange County youth immigrant group that has lead the campaign to shut down the Santa Ana jail. He believes the city can make room in the budget.

“Undocumented immigrants should not be paying the cost of the mistakes they have made in the past,” he said.

There are approximately 182 ICE detainees in custody, according to a city staff report. About 98 percent of the jail's business is with federal agencies, including the federal Bureau of Prisons, said City Manager David Cavazos.

"It's not sustainable without federal contracts,” he said.

But council members in this city with deep Latino roots and generally immigrant-friendly politics, decided to opt out. They also voted to hire a consultant to study how the city could reuse the jail. 

Jail experts in the state say reusing it could be challenging. The demand for  jail space has fallen since realignment and, especially since new state drug sentencing laws such as Proposition 47, have reduce state prison and county jail populations, said Brandon Martin, a corrections expert with the Public Policy Institute of California. 

The Santa Ana jail, which became operational in 1997, has a 512-bed capacity.

While the contract with ICE still runs, the City Council also decided to implement a transgender incarceration pilot program inside the jail. 

There are currently 27 transgender detainees staying in a module for 64 people, which city staff said, “is not financially feasible.”

“Staff would need to combine the transgender and gay/bisexual modules,” if the council did not approve the pilot program, which was strongly opposed by activists who launched a hunger strike on Monday.

The city will also offer some early retirement packages to at least 10 jail workers that are over the age of 55, as part of ending its contract with ICE by 2020.