Knox County Jail Enters Secretive Contract to House Immigrant Detainees

By Meghan Conley

Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) recently discovered that the Knox County Jail has entered into a secretive contract to house immigrant detainees. In August, AKIN noticed an alarming increase in the number of immigrants detained in the county jail. Further investigation revealed that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), under the leadership of former Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, signed an agreement to voluntarily detain immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including people from our community and surrounding counties. Combined with KCSO’s participation in the 287(g) program, implementation of this “bed contract” means that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has become a willing and fully operational arm of the federal deportation regime.

AKIN has spent the last year tracking the number of immigrants who receive ICE holds in the county jail. From September 2017 through July 2018, we documented an average of 18 ICE holds per month, ranging from a low of 14 detainees in May 2018 to a high of 28 in December 2017. In August 2018, at least 72 immigrant detainees were booked into the jail, an increase of 300% in the number of monthly detainees over the average from previous months. In the last year, the Knox County Jail has detained at least 269 immigrant detainees, 72 of whom were detained in August. In other words, more than a quarter of Knox County’s immigrant detainees from the last year were detained in August alone. This trend is likely to continue as long as KCSO maintains the bed contract.

Residents of Knox County should be deeply concerned that the jail has become a secretive ICE detention center. Immigration detention centers are notorious for the lack of oversight surrounding their operating standards, enabling systemic abuse of immigrant detainees in facilities elsewhere. Under the Jones administration, the Knox County Jail was cited numerous times for its abuse of inmates, including the use of a “torture chair” against a mentally ill inmate. What expectation can we have that immigrant detainees housed in our backyard are treated lawfully, with dignity, and in a manner consistent with our values? What standards will govern the Knox County Jail’s immigrant detention center, and who will this facility be accountable to?

The lack of public scrutiny on this contract is deeply troubling. Elected officials, community members, and other local stakeholders have been kept in the dark about this detention center and how it will function, especially in coordination with 287(g). By all accounts, even the new Sheriff was unaware that Jones had entered into a bed contract for immigrant detainees. The secrecy surrounding negotiations and implementation of the bed contract does not bode well for public oversight and accountability.

The former Sheriff has characterized the bed contract as a cost-saving measure, a way for the Knox County Jail to recuperate the costs of housing immigrant detainees. This stands in contrast to the fact that the contract does not fully reimburse the Knox County Jail for detaining immigrants, and despite the fact that Knox County may be held liable for any abuses of the program. If the Knox County Jail is seeking to save money on immigrant detainees, the best course of action is to decline to voluntarily detain immigrants for ICE.

The former Sheriff also characterized KCSO’s collaboration with federal immigration authorities as a way to address crime in our community. Nationally, the number of immigrant detainees has increased exponentially under the federal government’s expansive enforcement priorities, and the largest increase has been people whose sole charge is violation of federal immigration law or minor and nonviolent misdemeanors like traffic offenses. In Knox County alone, 90 percent of inmates with an ICE hold in the last year were arrested on misdemeanor charges, and 22 percent were arrested on charges no more severe than driving without a license. We suspect that many, if not most, immigrant detainees brought to the Knox County Jail from surrounding counties were also arrested on misdemeanors.

AKIN urges Sheriff Spangler to take immediate steps to re-evaluate KCSO’s participation in the federal deportation regime, including the bed contract and 287(g). Given the previous administration’s lack of transparency, the problems endemic to immigration detention centers, and the fact that local collaboration primarily impacts people with misdemeanors and purely immigration violations, we believe that the county’s ongoing participation with these programs will cause great harm to our community, and no benefit. We encourage Sheriff Spangler to distance himself from Jones’ legacy and pledge his commitment to making Knoxville a welcoming city for all our neighbors.

Meghan Conley is a co-founder and steering committee member of AKIN — Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors

A version of this article appeared in the Knox News Sentinel on September 12, 2018

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