No Chance Alamance

Immigration Detention and Jail Expansion in the North Carolina Piedmont

North Carolina is a political battleground. For decades, people in the Tar Heel State have been locked in an internal struggle over monuments to the past, issues of the present, and—as a key swing state—the future of the United States. In Alamance County, North Carolina, as in much of the country, the sheriff’s office and county jail form a central arena of political and social planning, and a focal point in a battle that is, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and racist police brutality, increasingly a fight over life and death.

Alamance County lies in the Piedmont Region in North Carolina—an area that has a long history of white landowners using explicitly racist violence to gain and maintain control of political institutions. Today, this dynamic can be seen in the local sheriff’s dehumanizing rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies—mobilized to increase the funding, capacity, and power of his officers and the jail, and in opposition to people organizing against poverty in the county. Terry Johnson, a white Republican who was first elected sheriff in 2002, turned his department’s attention to the immigrant community in Alamance, joining a controversial federal immigrant enforcement program—a provision of 287(g) in the federal immigration code—which allows local law enforcement to be deputized as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, giving them the power to detain people based on immigration status.

After the county commission voted to join 287(g) in 2006, Johnson employed the program to terrible effect. Between 2008 and 2013, Latinx people were six times more likely to be pulled over by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department than non-Latinx people. Reports surfaced that Johnson was instructing officers to discriminate against people who “appeared” Mexican. Johnson reportedly told his deputies, empowered by 287(g), to “go out there and get me some taco-eaters.” Todd Zimmer, an organizer with the local activist group Down Home NC, estimates that this new collaboration eventually resulted in 10 percent of the Latinx community being deported during that period.

The Alamance County Jail was built in 1985, with a capacity of 156 beds. According to Zimmer and others, the government of Alamance County sees the jail as a source of revenue. In fact, the county rents beds to other agencies, primarily ICE. In 2006, the county built a detention center—essentially an expansion of the county jail system—with an additional capacity of 240 beds, at a cost of approximately $9 million. The county later built an annex on the detention center with an added capacity of 80 beds. The jail expansion was an investment in policing and incarceration, backed by increased immigrant detention and future revenue from ICE. As one county resident explained, “immigration is how he [the sheriff] got that new jail.”

In 2013, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department, alleging unconstitutional racial profiling. The federal government later dropped the lawsuit and, hours later, ICE ended the county’s participation in the 287(g) program. From 2013—when the county sheriff’s office lost its 287(g) agreement with ICE—until 2016, the average daily population of the county jail system fell by nearly 20 percent.

NAFTA and demographic change

Alamance is a county of 169,500 people. It was once home to textile mills—the economic base of the region around which nearly a century of struggle over labor rights and racial justice played out. In decline since the 1970s, much of the remaining industry relocated to Mexico following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since then, however, the population of Alamance County has grown 40 percent. It is a mostly rural county, in commuting distance from two of the more prosperous areas of the state: the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill; and the Piedmont Triad of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. Since the mid-90s, Alamance County has shifted economically and demographically, recruiting tech and research firms and becoming a bedroom community to the urban areas to the east and west.

Alamance Iob Bail Bonds
Graham, NC. Photo credit: Jack Norton.

As manufacturing jobs were leaving post-NAFTA, migrants from Mexico and Central America settled in the region to work in agriculture and other industries, accounting for 40 percent of the increase in resident population in Alamance County since 1994. Driving through the county today, you can see rolling green fields along with empty mills. Burlington, population 53,000, is the largest city in the county and home to the headquarters of LabCorp, part of the growing medical and technology economy in the region. Graham, the county seat, is a small town with a confederate monument in front of the courthouse in the central square. On the outskirts of both towns are strip malls and family-owned Mexican restaurants. Alamance is a diverse but majority-white county, politically dominated, at the county level, by white leadership. Nineteen percent of people living in Alamance are Black and 13 percent are Latinx, and economic inequity is pervasive in the region. Twenty-eight percent of Black people and 36 percent of Latinx people in the county live in poverty, compared to 13 percent of white people.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won Alamance County by more than 12 percentage points. (Guilford County, to the west, and Durham County, to the east, both went Democrat.) Sheriff Johnson sought to reestablish a relationship with ICE after Trump took office, and there was a widespread belief in Alamance that the sheriff’s department would rejoin the 287(g) program. In 2018, people took to the streets to protest a return to this official form of racial intimidation and deportation. At the same time, armed members of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC)— an organization listed as a neo-confederate hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016 and 2017—guarded the confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

In the wake of these protests, Sheriff Johnson declined to pursue direct collaboration with ICE along the lines of the previous model. However, as immigration-related detentions rose in the first months of the Trump administration, the sheriff’s office continued to partner with ICE and increase revenue by leasing county jail beds directly to the federal agency. In February 2019, Alamance finalized a contract with the federal government wherein the county guarantees 50 local jail beds for ICE and is paid $135 per bed, per day, whether or not the beds are filled. A further 44 beds are rented to the United States Marshals Service at $82 per bed, per day. Collectively, this accounts for more than $3.5 million in revenue a year for the county.

The expansion of county jail infrastructure in the United States has both provided and been fueled by increased federal immigration detention. As the number of immigrants detained in the United States rises, sheriffs and other local elected officials have seen political opportunity, as well as a way to subsidize increased investment in local pretrial detention by renting jail space to ICE. Jail incarceration in rural counties, nationwide, has risen 27 percent since 2013, and has risen 7 percent in small and midsize cities. Across the country, counties have been investing money in building bigger and bigger jails, and the implications of this massive and decentralized expansion of jail capacity are vast, from realigning local politics towards increasing incarceration and immigrant detention to precluding investment in other social infrastructure, such as health care and education.

Racial violence as governing strategy

While the sheriff’s office brings in revenue from the federal government by detaining people in the jail, ICE agents terrorize Latinx people living in the county. Juan Miranda, an organizer with the local immigrant rights activist group Siembra, described the situation like this: “It used to be that [ICE] knocked on doors. . .[but] people know not to open doors anymore. Their new strategy has been to wait outside of people’s trailer parks. They might be following someone for a few days, and they pull them over on the way to work, at six or seven in the morning. . . . [T]hey have polarized windows, just like unmarked cars. They dress like civilians, but have police lights. So people get afraid, get out of their car, and then they get detained.”

Burlington Factory in NC
Burlington, NC. Photo credit: Jack Norton.

An older Black resident of the county described the effect that recent ICE raids have on people living in Alamance, connecting it to the history of racist violence in North Carolina: “The terror is inexpressible, as to what could happen if you come into a situation where your father goes out and never comes back, or mother. And if anyone even witnesses something like that, the trauma associated with it can be so lasting until, you know, we could never even express how this works psychologically. The fear. It’s real.”

Racial-terror-as-governing-strategy has a long history in Alamance County. In 1870, organized white supremacists murdered Wyatt Outlaw, the Black elected constable of Graham, on the lawn of the courthouse, close to where the confederate monument stands today. The killing of Outlaw, and the subsequent assassination of the Republican State Senator John W. Stephens, led Governor William Holden to impose martial law and engage the insurgent Ku Klux Klan in armed conflict. Soon after Democrats took power in North Carolina in 1871, Governor Holden was impeached and removed from office, ushering in the era of Jim Crow and white supremacist control of the state. The Klan has maintained an active presence in the region and, today, organizations like ACTBAC remain visible and active.

During and after reconstruction, the Klan served as an extralegal and then parastatal terrorist organization for white landowners to regain and maintain political control in central North Carolina. Today, ICE, working with the sheriff’s department—and drawing on racist anti-immigrant sentiment—serves a similar function in the county. Anti-immigrant demagoguery allows the sheriff to stoke fear and division while justifying investment in local policing and incarceration. In his plea to the county commission to approve his deal with ICE, he said, echoing President Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric, that immigrants were “raping our citizens in many, many ways.” As one Alamance resident told us, “public politics [here] is just race-baiting. All the time. There’s not really another layer to the conversation.”

Courthouse NC
Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, NC. Photo credit: Jack Norton.

Since his initial election on a platform of strict drug enforcement, Sheriff Johnson has exaggerated the dangers that residents of Alamance County face from a variety of sources. In 2018, Johnson coordinated a seminar on Mexican cartels for local police and deputies, and was quoted saying that Alamance County has a huge problem with the Sinaloa cartel. However, according to Rich Jackson, former editor of the Burlington Times-News, the sheriff is manufacturing fear for political gain. In June, 2019, Jackson said, “They string together random unrelated arrests and give it a name like ‘Operation Christmas Sleigh’. I’m sure we’re due for ‘Operation Summertime Massacre’.” On July 3, the sheriff announced “Operation Firecracker,” in which eighteen people were arrested on minor drug charges.

The sheriff has used this type of fear mongering to pursue even greater law enforcement and jail capacity in the county. In late 2018, he asked for—and received—more than $2 million in funding from the county for 30 more deputies, again citing challenges from the Sinaloa cartel.

Organizing for justice, organizing against detention and incarceration

The sheriff’s office has been one of the focal points of a broader political struggle. Siembra NC, Down Home NC, Faith Action, and Never Again Action have been organizing protests and providing support to families and migrants targeted by ICE. On November 24, 2019, hundreds of demonstrators blocked streets in Graham, protesting the hiring of more deputies and calling for the sheriff’s office to refuse to renew the contract with ICE. The protestors were met with sheriff’s deputies dressed in riot gear. Nine people were arrested, and the deputies dispersed the protest with a sound cannon.

By subsidizing jail expansion with revenue from ICE, the sheriff increased the capacity of Alamance County to detain non-immigrants—and it has done so in large numbers. People living in poverty have been particularly hard hit. In 2017, the average daily population of the jail was 438 people, of whom 315—approximately 71 percent—were held pretrial. Most of these people are in the jail because they are too poor to pay bail. It has been well established that people who are locked up pretrial face worse outcomes at trial than people who are released pretrial. In Alamance County, as in many other counties, this means that poor people go to jail for much longer, and are more likely to be sentenced to jail time, than wealthier people who are charged with the same offense. And a high proportion of people charged with misdemeanors are set bail in Alamance County; in 2018, the county ranked second in the state on this metric.

In this context, Down Home has started a bail fund, where members raise money to pay bail for people in the Alamance County jail. And the North Carolina branch of the ACLU worked with Down Home NC to build a case that bail-setting practices in the county were illegal. They did this by filing a class action lawsuit against court officials in the county, claiming that the county’s cash bail system discriminates against poor people.

With the increased attention to bail practices in the county, The Alamance News, a conservative weekly paper based in Graham, recently ran an article that included interviews with local bail bond agents who profit directly from pretrial detention in the county and who made repeated and baseless claims about the possibility of crime rising if the county’s bail practices were to be reformed. “People call it ‘Last Chance Alamance’ because they know if they commit crime and get caught, there are going to be consequences,” said one local bail bondsperson. In speaking with people in the county, however, we learned of a different and more widely used moniker—No Chance Alamance—referring to the inability of poor people in the county to escape the nexus of low-wage jobs and carceral control.

In the midst of lawsuits and protests, the sheriff and his allies on the county commission have prepared for battle. In December of 2019, the county unveiled a new armored personnel carrier at a Christmas parade in Graham. Previously, when explaining to the county’s board of commissioners why he needed the nearly $300,000 vehicle, Sheriff Johnson said that his office “has been trying to prepare for violent protests.” The Alamance News printed an editorial after the November protests entitled “Our Compliments to Law Enforcement,” vilifying those who oppose ICE raids and immigrant detention in the community. “Extremist advocates,” it read, “want to impose their will here, threaten those who disagree, and ridicule local law enforcement and, quite frankly, challenge the rule of law altogether.” Recently, in the wake of nationwide unrest following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, and amidst demands to remove confederate monuments, the Alamance County Sheriff’s office has attempted to ban protests in Graham and has stationed a police cruiser next to the confederate monument on the courthouse lawn.

No Chance Alamance Armored Vehicle Place
Armored vehicle in Graham, NC. Photo credit: Sugelema Lynch

Now, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, jails have become critical sites of contagion and community spread. Many counties have chosen to decarcerate in the face of this pandemic, but Alamance County has less freedom to reduce its jail population due to contracts with the federal government. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Alamance County Jail as of July 21, 2020, and Sheriff Johnson is conducting business as usual, putting countless lives, both inside and outside of the jail, at risk of transmission. For decades, counties and states have invested in a buildup of carceral infrastructure and have disinvested from health and other social services, especially in rural areas and small cities. It is becoming clearer and clearer that jails are harmful to people and communities—exactly what is not needed in the face of a pandemic.

“The whole issue,” Zimmer told us, “goes back to Terry Johnson advocating for a jail expansion prior to his entry into the 287(g) program, and his argument to the county commission was, ‘this can be a money maker for the county. We’ll lease these beds. . .’ And so there’s pressure, economic pressure, and really compelling political forces that push him into an extremist position against immigrants in a public way.” Alamance County, at present, is moving ahead with plans for another jail expansion of 16 to 24 beds. If built, the expansion will bring the county’s jail capacity to more than 500 beds. “I don’t think we’d be having these raids or these ICE operatives,” said Miranda, “if it weren’t for the incentive of filling these beds. I think it adds another level to the, you know, uncertainty that people live with.”