If You Build It

How the Federal Government Fuels Rural Jail Expansion

The federal government has been fueling a quiet jail boom since the 1980s.

The Iowa caucus, which traditionally begins the presidential primaries, will be held next month, and candidates have been traversing the state for more than a year. In contrast to the last election, criminal justice reform has been a major subject of debate. Among the Democratic candidates, ending the use of private prisons is an oft-repeated talking point, and nearly all are quick to note that the federal government has only a small role in the various and massive state prison systems. What they don’t mention, however, is that the federal government is playing a large and overlooked role in the incarceration of people in jails in rural counties and small cities in Iowa and across the country.

Although the federal government operates prisons, there is no nationwide system of federal jails—apart from a handful in large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. An increasing number of people detained by the federal government, however, are held in a dispersed and shifting network of locally run county jails. The federal government funded the expansion of this network in the years following the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act in order to hold pretrial detainees as federal prosecutors more aggressively pursued drug charges. More recently, the network has been expanded to hold increasing numbers of immigrant detainees. Many counties, such as Marshall County, Iowa, are not home to federal or state prisons but are still part of the expanding network of contracted county jails organized over the last 30 years.

Marshalltown is a city of 28,000 people in central Iowa, 52 miles northeast of Des Moines, and is the seat of Marshall County. The old county jail, which could incarcerate 23 people at any one time, was replaced in 2000 with a much larger, $4 million jail 10 miles west of the city. The new jail can hold up to 180 people. In the summer of 2019, when we spoke with jail administrator Patrick White, the jail was at capacity, and about half of it was being used to hold people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and for other counties.

According to White, the sheriff’s office signed a contract with the United States Marshals Service (USMS) as the jail was being built. The contract allows the jail to hold federal detainees—that is, people being held pretrial facing federal charges—and to receive per diem payments from the federal government for doing so. “We have a contract with the Marshals, but we never actually housed Marshal inmates,” he said. “It’s just that ICE piggybacked off that, so we just have ICE inmates.” This is common practice. Since 1950, all contracts between local governments and the USMS (or the Bureau of Prisons) for federal pretrial detention space have also been written to cover immigrant detainees.

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Dubuque County, Iowa

In much of rural America, excess jail capacity is built to be rented to federal agencies and other counties. In August 2019, there were 17 people incarcerated by ICE at the Marshall County Jail, down from the previous year when the number was around 70. White said that Marshall County prioritized bringing in incarcerated people and detainees from other counties this year and that the nearby counties pay Marshall higher per diem rates than does ICE. ICE, however, is still an active player in the so-called market for jail beds. “I know that ICE is constantly looking for bed space,” White said. “They say, ‘Hey, I have four or five bodies, do you have room for them?’”

USMS and ICE have played a key role in jail expansion in the United States over the last few decades. The promise of per diem payments from USMS and ICE has helped local administrators build larger jails and expand their operating budgets. Bigger jails enable counties to incarcerate immigrants and asylum seekers for ICE and pretrial detainees held for USMS, which in turn generates revenue that offsets the cost of detaining and incarcerating local people. County leaders also try to build up local jail capacity in order to avoid paying neighboring counties to hold people for them. The result has been an intercounty carceral arms race in much of the country, producing greater capacity to incarcerate at the local level and bigger and bigger jails.

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, sponsored by Senator Strom Thurmond and championed by Senator Joe Biden and other Democrats, increased the average number of people detained by the Marshals by 32 percent within one year. Federal criminal caseloads almost doubled in the 1980s, growing from 28,921 in 1980 to 47,411 in 1990. Because many big city jails at the time were under court orders over conditions of confinement, this new population of federal pretrial detainees pushed the Marshals to establish a network of jails in rural counties that were often far from federal courthouses.

In 2000, Congress established The Office of the Federal Detention Trustee, a small unit in the U.S. Department of Justice, to plan jail and prison expansion in coordination with local and state governments and coordinate across agencies. In 2001, alongside a broader reorganization by the federal government in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the office devised a “comprehensive national detention strategy,” the goal of which was to expand local jail space to meet the needs of ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Prisons, with an expectation of increasing incarceration by the three agencies. Stacia Hylton, the trustee from 2004 to 2010, became the director of the U.S. Marshals Service from 2010 to 2015, and the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee merged with the U.S. Marshals Service in 2012.

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Local jails providing federal detention, 2013–2017

Federal agencies now detain people in local jails and private detention centers all over the United States. In the 2018 fiscal year, an average of nearly 30,000 people locked up by the USMS facing federal criminal charges were held in local jails at an expense of $1 billion. Additionally, ICE paid an estimated $340 million to local jails to hold immigration detainees—bringing total annual federal payments to $1.3 billion dollars. Since the 1980s, the billions that the USMS and ICE spent in per diem payments have been a key source of revenue for small county jails, and an enabling factor for the expansion of local carceral infrastructure. Projected revenue from these agencies helps counties attract further capital investments through revenue bonds from Wall Street into jail construction, a sector of the municipal bond market characterized by Bloomberg Businessweek as “among the most likely to go into default.

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Number of people detained in local jails under USMS contracts

By expanding jails and incarcerating people for ICE, the U.S. Marshals, and neighboring jurisdictions, rural counties bring in revenue. “It’s just added extra,” said Patrick White. “Overall jail revenue is about a million dollars a year, which then offsets our annual budget.” From the point of view of the USMS and ICE, using jails in rural counties outsources the work of siting and constructing detention facilities, while shifting the financial risk onto counties. Consequently, these counties are encouraged to invest in an increased ability to lock people up.

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Eldora, Iowa

The largest ICE detention center in Iowa is the Hardin County jail in Eldora, a town of 2,700 people 30 miles north of Marshalltown. The jail has a capacity of 107 and around 70 percent of the facility is used for holding detainees for ICE.

In 1998, the old 16-bed Hardin County jail, built in 1910 across from the courthouse, was condemned. The county formed a jail task force to plan a replacement jail. The task force hired architects from Des Moines to design what became a $5.1 million jail. At the time, many of the counties surrounding Hardin had either small jails or no jail at all. The plan, at the beginning, was for Hardin to build a jail large enough to incarcerate people for surrounding counties—48 beds, expandable to 76 beds in the original design. By renting beds, Hardin would bring in revenue to pay for the project. In the lead-up to the vote, one of the task force members was quoted in the local paper. “There will be prisoners, and there will be a jail to hold them,” he said. “The question is, where will it be?”

In 2002, the county signed an exclusive intergovernmental agreement to house detainees for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the precursor to ICE), making the Hardin County jail in Eldora the central location for the agency’s northeast Iowa region. Most of the detainees locked up in Eldora were people from Mexico who had moved to Iowa to work in agriculture and meatpacking. In 2010, in an article about the recession, the local paper reported that the jail was doing well. Hardin County brought in over $2 million in annual revenues from ICE and other counties. The county paid off the debt acquired in building the jail in 2018 and continues to house detainees for ICE.

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Jackson County, Iowa

In Iowa, and across the country, counties are planning for the future—and debating what the future will look like. Jackson County is in eastern Iowa on the Mississippi River. Like many counties in rural Iowa, Jackson has a small jail, built decades ago. The jail is attached to the sheriff’s office and has a capacity of 11. Jackson County brought a bond issue to voters to build a new jail twice in the last two years. After the first issue was voted down in 2018, county officials tried again. In August 2019, voters in the county again rejected a plan for a 74-bed jail.

Steve Schroeder, the Jackson County Jail administrator, says that the county is paying money to send people incarcerated by the county to other nearby jails and that, by building big, the county would have been able to bring in incarcerated people from other counties—and revenue from per diem payments—to pay off the bonds more quickly, with less burden on the taxpayers. When asked why the bond measure for the new jail failed, Schroeder pointed out that there had been opposition in Bellevue, in the eastern part of the county. “Bellevue absolutely killed us,” he said. “But see, they’re trying to build a new school over there. . . . People in the Bellevue area, if they’re going to pay more taxes, would rather see their taxes go towards a school than a jail. Which is disheartening. But you know, the people have a right to vote.”