UPDATE 4/6: The jail just received 70 federal inmates, less than a week after the below article was written. For more information, go HERE.
“Door Seven,” Commander Suffle said into his radio. A few moments later a buzzing sound came from the metal door in front of us, and he opened it and showed us through. It was me, Sheriff Bill Risen and Captain Curt Bagby in a little entourage making its way through the La Paz County Detention facility, which is much more elaborate on the inside than you may think.
“It’s busy all the time, it’s a constant flow up here. Do you want to see the kitchen?” Suffle asked. I said it was okay, but we talked about the needs of the jail’s commercial food operation, which needs to be able to provide 3 meals a day to up to hundreds of inmates, and all to a certain standard.
We walked past the booking cage, holding tanks, tables for sorting out paperwork, processing room where mugshots and fingerprints are taken, change room and shower complete with de-licing soap, property room, visitation room, and into the main population area: 4 pods in a square configuration facing onto a central control tower.
“This board tells us we’ve got 10 people in [this pod] right now,” Suffle said as we arrived in front of one of the pods. “This guy right here on the phone, he’s been to prison. The guy back there at the table playing cards, he’s been in for a while.”
The inmates are dressed in orange jumpsuits, their cell doors open behind them, tables and seating in the common area in front. They have access to communication with the jail staff and the outside world through a touchscreen system, one for each pod. For example, if they want to request a change of clothes or an aspirin or access to a digital law library, they can send it via the system.
As we were talking, one inmate approached the glass divider and held up to it a drawing he’d been working on. Sheriff Risen gave him a thumbs up. “Very good!” he said.
I asked him if he’d gotten to know some of the inmates since starting as the new sheriff in January. “Yes,” he replied. “Some of them have been here a while, and others are repeat customers.”
Risen is one of a number of elected officials who have inherited a financial crisis at La Paz County, a general fund budget in the red, arrears and a cashflow shortage. A lot of the talk has focused attention on the jail, now Risen’s responsibility, which is one of the County’s bigger expenses.
Construction began on the current La Paz County Detention facility in 1993 to meet the County Sheriff’s obligations to provide “a county jail under the jurisdiction of a county jail district” as set out in Arizona law.
But the founders of the jail in Parker, AZ thought the facility could serve a larger purpose in addition to what it was obligated to provide. La Paz County had separated from Yuma County only 12 years earlier, becoming the only county to be formed since Arizona became a state. People here had started to see some big challenges for the young county: although it met the required standard of having “at least one hundred square miles of privately owned land” within its boundaries, that land was generating only the bare minimum in property taxes needed for the new County to survive.
Out of 4500 square miles of land, the vast majority of it was owned by federal, state or tribal governments including the federal Bureau of Land Management, the State of Arizona and the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Unlike most counties, who had big swaths of private landowners paying property taxes, less than 6 percent of the land in La Paz County could be taxed for the County’s operating funds. Somehow, other sources of revenue needed to be found. And that’s where the jail came in.
The U.S. Marshals Office, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Border Patrol were in need of cells to house federal inmates. If the county jail could be built in a certain way, to certain standards and with a larger capacity, the federal government would pay the county to house its inmates, mostly undocumented immigrants who had run afoul of the law.
So the jail was opened in 1995 with many times the number of cells required to meet the County’s needs: room for around 300 inmates, over 3 times the capacity the County would need to accommodate local arrests.
The number of inmates on the day I visited was 70, according to Suffle, who was promoted to Commander in January with the election of Risen. While that may make it sound as though the jail was mostly empty, it didn’t feel that way at all, because of the facility’s pod structure and general design. But it’s certainly less than it was until several years ago because, according to everyone I talked to, that’s when the feds stopped sending the usual number of inmates, and that’s when the federal money that La Paz County was relying on turned from a stream into a trickle.
“I’ve got 3 coming today, they’re ICE detainees, so I’m bringing them in from Kingman, we’ll hold them overnight for ICE, and then bring them to Yuma in the morning,” Suffle told me during my visit.
These inmates are typically arrested on local charges in some jurisdiction, perhaps for aggravated assault or drug charges, but with the added complication of being discovered to be undocumented immigrants. On some occasions, that’s when the feds will get involved and take custody of them. They’ll be held, then put in front of a judge, sometimes deported, sometimes released. But while they’re in federal custody, the government needs cells to house them, and that’s where La Paz County Detention facility played an important role, along with other facilities like it.
But a wave of private prison contracts since then has meant that new facilities have been purpose-built for housing federal inmates, according to Suffle.
“There’s money out there for prisoners,” he said. “But private prisons cut our contracts, most of the inmates went to Texas. There’s a private prison in San Luis that didn’t used to be there, and they now have to send them there first. I haven’t seen their contracts but they have to hit some minimum numbers with private prisons first, and there are private prisons all over the place.”
And the private prisons aren’t the only factor cited for the disappearance of federal inmates from La Paz County. During the Great Recession, the numbers of border apprehensions dropped with the economy, and roughly a million Mexican nationals and their families left the U.S. for Mexico. The Obama administration prioritized deportations for undocumented immigrants who committed crimes, but two-thirds of the 2.5 million deportations during those years were carried out within 100 miles of the border, a larger percentage of which were handled by Border Patrol (whose budget doubled from 2003 to 2013).
A bed quota requires ICE to hold an average of 34,000 individuals in detention on a daily basis, costing around $5.5 million per day. It’s a tiny share of exactly that pie that La Paz County hopes to get back. It isn’t immediately obvious, until you investigate it, how federal immigration policy set in Washington D.C. can have such a profound effect on the finances of a small Arizona county.
Back in the jail’s prime, Border Patrol and ICE would make 60 or 70 arrests over a single weekend, and busloads would arrive in La Paz County for holding before seeing a federal judge in Yuma. With such numbers, even 24-hour detainments repeated so many times would allow La Paz County to raise significant amounts of revenue over many years.
“The county was in the black by $8 or $9 million,” said Captain Bagby. “That money didn’t come back to the Sheriff’s Department, but it was earned by the jail for the County. It didn’t help our budget, nothing. But now that it’s in the red, the argument is that the jail owes the county’s general fund the money that it wouldn’t have even had in the first place.”
La Paz County’s Board of Supervisors have admitted that they have some difficult decisions ahead of them, some of them in the short-term and others more far-sighted. Talk of furloughs and layoffs have employees worried and Supervisors carefully considering their fiscal options. One option that comes up often, floating around the County offices as the ultimate fix to the County’s woes: getting federal inmates back, like they used to be. It would be a golden bullet.
But there’s some uncertainty as to whether it’ll happen. Commander Suffle says he thinks the facility can get some more ‘paying’ inmates, but also that it’ll depend very much on what the numbers of federal arrests look like under President Trump and what the government decides to do with those people.
“I hear a lot about ICE, but it’s really the U.S. Marshals that are in charge of the number we get,” he said. “I talk to them on a weekly basis and they know we’re here and ready to receive more inmates.”
In the meantime, the facility that used to generate significant amounts of revenue for the County is costing six figures to operate every month, according to numbers released in February.
Bagby told me that closing part of the jail isn’t an answer that would work, something that I easily saw by walking through it with him, Risen and Suffle. The layout is intrinsically set up to operate in quadrants, with separations of inmate by classification.
“If this jail were small, just enough to accommodate 100 prisoners for La Paz County, it still would cost a lot to run,” Bagby said. “That’s what counties do. You have to pay all the medical issues, all the people that get arrested by Quartzsite and Parker, we get stuck with those medical issues, the women that we have to hold long-term who are pregnant, people with any kind of disability, all of that gets thrown in our budget. Every county has a jail and every jail costs money. They don’t make money, they’re not supposed to. However, if we can house federal inmates, we can make money again.”
So, a county jail is a cost. A necessary cost. If it can also be made into a business, then that’s a bonus. But if it can’t, then La Paz County is still back at square one, struggling to raise enough revenues to operate with less than 6 percent taxable land.
Suffle: “I’m reaching out to ICE, I’m reaching out to the Marhsals, constantly. We have a small contract with Havasu. It’s not much, but it’s something, it’s money we’re trying to get back in.”
We walked into a special wing for inmates sent to solitary confinement, stopping at a cell where VICE filmmaker James Burns stayed voluntarily for 30 days over the holidays. His stay was live streamed online, earning the Sheriff’s Department some praise for its transparency and confidence in its facility. We saw the area set aside for school, reading, church and classes. Walked through the enclosed yard, its towering walls on all 4 sides yielding to sunlight at the top.
And finally, I was shown inside the control tower, the beating heart of the facility. From here, the duty control officer can see everything that’s happening: every inmate, every officer, the inside of every room, the status of every door, even the rooftop above it all. It’s a constant hive of activity, with requests from inmates, communications from officers, procedures being followed, protocols being carried out, doors being remotely triggered open and closed. The center of a machine in continual motion.
Sheriff Risen: “Not only do these guys have to meet the rules set by the feds and the state and everybody else, but when I took office I brought in somebody who runs a company and works for Graham County, and he came in to tell me what expectations I should have for our jail. An unbiased third party who made the rounds and then came to Captain Bagby and I, and said, ‘Hey, this is what you guys have got. You’ve got a good deal going, it’s working really well.’”
I’ve heard there’s a meeting with the feds happening in April at which the County can make its case. Sheriff Risen says he’s made sure that the jail will be ready; if the Marshals or ICE ask if they can send inmates the following day, La Paz County can say yes.
But if not, La Paz County will need to meet its obligations to provide services, including a jail, without them. And that means the County is, in some respects, at the mercy of the federal government and its decisions on immigration policy.