Federal immigration authorities send an average of 60 people to Vermont prisons each month

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Border Patrol Swanton Sector HQ
The Border Patrol Swanton Sector headquarters in Swanton. File photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

Vermont’s prisons hold anywhere from 40 to nearly 100 people detained by federal immigration authorities each month, according to Vermont Department of Corrections data, a number that’s grown amid increased apprehensions at the state’s northern border.

Though the arrangement has existed for more than a decade, it has received little scrutiny.

Earlier this year, the very fact of those detentions came as a surprise to Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, who has led the House Corrections and Institutions Committee since before the state’s prisons were explicitly authorized to hold people detained by ICE in 2011.

In an interview, Emmons said she knew about other people who were detained by federal immigration officials, but the first she’d heard of the state corrections department’s arrangement with ICE was this past legislative session, when Vermont Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml briefed her committee. 

“It’s uncomfortable to know that we’re doing this,” Emmons said. “We want to keep tabs on it.”

A federal contract, a state system and a private prison

Lawmakers, state officials and journalists alike have spilled little ink discussing Vermont Department of Corrections’ partnership with federal immigration authorities, a practice that takes place in neighboring states as well. The most detailed writing to date comes from a former Vermont Law School student, Anders Newbury, who, writing in the school’s law review, detailed the interaction between Vermont law, the state’s prison system and people who are detained by federal immigration officials.

A 2017 law signed by Gov. Phil Scott sought to prohibit state and local law enforcement from assisting with immigration enforcement efforts. Vermont’s model fair and impartial policing policy also prevents such collaboration. 

But Newbury cited correspondence he received through a records request showing that ICE assured Vermont DOC that their work together did not violate state policies. 

A contract last updated in 2016 between the U.S. Marshals Service and the Vermont Department of Corrections holds 60 beds in state prisons for federal use. An addition to that contract also allows ICE and the federal Bureau of Prisons to use the beds. The state receives $130 per person per day through the contract, money that goes to the state’s general fund, not to the Department of Corrections. 

Last year, the federal contract netted about $1 million for the general fund, according to corrections officials.

“The US Marshals Service holds individuals — overwhelmingly Vermont residents — charged with federal crimes facing trial in Vermont federal district court,” Isaac Dayno, a corrections spokesperson, told VTDigger in an email. “If this contract was to be terminated, an estimated 60 Vermont residents would be detained out of state and require frequent transfers back to Vermont to meet court appointments.”

“A much smaller number of detainees, often between zero and ten on any given day, are held by Customs and Border Protection,” primarily at Northwest State Correctional Facility, Dayno said. In 2023, that number has ranged from 42 in February, to 97 in June.

At the same time, Vermont has for years relied on out-of-state prisons to house a portion of the people it incarcerates. As of Sept. 15, the state sent 126 people to a private prison in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, most of whom are serving long sentences, according to corrections officials. The state pays an $82 per diem for people not receiving medically assisted opioid treatment, and about $96 for those who are. 

‘If not us, then who?’

In March, Commissioner Deml met with lawmakers on the House Corrections and Institutions Committee to discuss the basics of Vermont’s agreement to hold people who are detained by federal immigration officials, including people detained by ICE.

“There’s really two separate things, the Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Deml told lawmakers. “The state of Vermont basically does this to be a good partner to the federal government.”

The conversation arose amid the corrections department’s request for funds to expand the booking area of Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, the same facility that holds the majority of people detained by ICE. Northwest serves as the primary detention center for men in northwestern Vermont, including Chittenden County, and demand for its beds have strained the facility, Deml suggested. 

Demand, he specified, was primarily due to the needs of the state, not federal partners. 

The proposed expansion would increase the number of beds in booking from six to 16. The Legislature ultimately approved $2.5 million to put toward that process. 

In his presentation to lawmakers, Deml said U.S. Customs and Border Protection often drops individuals at Vermont’s prisons with little to no notice, sometimes as many as 25 in a weekend at Northwest, and the state has turned away people who are detained due to lack of space. People held by ICE stay an average of two days before being transported to immigration courts in New York and Boston, according to the presentation. 

People detained by immigration authorities come from the state’s northern border with Canada, and though most are held at Northwest, some are lodged in the St. Johnsbury prison, and women are held at the state’s women’s prison in South Burlington, according to Deml.

“Usually the individuals present to us very sick,” Deml told lawmakers. They often also require translators, he said, particularly Spanish-language translators. 

Asked why the state would hold people for ICE amid a shortage in beds for people in state custody, Deml pointed toward a lack of alternatives if Vermont were to end the arrangement. He suggested that other facilities the federal government might rely on do not necessarily have a good track record when it comes to caring for those in their custody.

“I think the ‘if not us, then who?’ is a bit of a question mark for us,” Deml said, referring to where people who are detained would go if not Vermont’s prisons. “It’s a little scary to not know what we’re sending people off into.”

A patchwork of prisons

People apprehended near U.S. borders for entering the country illegally are often first held by Customs and Border Protection before being transferred into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. 

Unless a person has been charged with a crime, the immigration detention process is civil, rather than criminal. 

Officials in Customs and Border Protection’s Swanton Sector patrol about 24,000 square miles in Vermont and parts of upstate New York and New Hampshire.

Recently, apprehensions in the Swanton Sector have increased significantly and led the entire country’s northern border in illicit crossings.

In September, the Swanton Sector reported 6,100 apprehensions in the prior 11 months, “surpassing the last 10 years combined,” its leader tweeted. 

Nationwide, ICE was detaining about 30,000 people per day as of this summer, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, a number that has doubled during Joe Biden’s presidency. 

Only a small percentage of those people — about 10% in 2020 — are actually held at ICE facilities, according to ICE’s own data

The federal agency sometimes contracts directly with private prisons, but most often it signs agreements with state or county governments to access prison beds, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

As is the case in Vermont, ICE may also access detention beds by tacking on an addition to a U.S. Marshals Service contract. Responsible for holding people charged with federal crimes, the Marshals Service lacks jails and instead contracts with states or counties. In the beginning of 2020, such contracts accounted for about 13% of people detained by ICE, according to a paper published in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal analyzing ICE data. 

The Marshals Service’s Vermont district holds about 175 people at any given time, according to John Curtis, a spokesperson for the service. With only 60 beds available in Vermont, that means the Marshal’s Service is always shuffling people into and out of the state, he said.

“There is quite a demand, that’s for sure,” Curtis said. Asked if the Marshals Service would seek a larger contract with Vermont, he demurred.

“We have a fantastic relationship with the Department of Corrections,” he said. “We’re always talking about what we could do differently, how we could benefit each other.”

Curtis declined to comment on the part of the contract that allows ICE to use Vermont prison beds.

‘We’ll just keep an eye on it’

ICE also contracts with prisons in New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to house people who are detained.

The Strafford County Corrections facility in Dover, New Hampshire, for example, housed an average daily population of 62 in fiscal year 2023, according to ICE data. A facility in Plymouth, Massachusetts, held on average 91 people per day in the same time frame.

Some ICE facilities, including in the Northeast, have drawn scrutiny from government experts.

Inspection reports from 2017 to 2019 obtained by NPR earlier this year detailed “barbaric” and “negligent” conditions in ICE facilities around the country. A particular damning report detailed verbal abuse at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York.

In his remarks to lawmakers, Vermont’s corrections commissioner implied that people detained by ICE would be worse off if not held in Vermont prisons. 

Elsewhere in the country, however, concerns about ICE have led corrections departments to stop working with the agency, and state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting such collaboration. 

Earlier this summer, Colorado passed a law banning local jails and prisons from holding people detained by ICE, Colorado Public Radio reported, though private prisons are unaffected by the law. Maryland passed similar legislation in 2021.

But just last month, a federal judge struck down a New Jersey law that sought to prevent a private prison in the state from working with ICE, arguing that the law illegally restricted powers granted to the federal government. 

Rep. Alice Emmons, the chair of Vermont’s House corrections committee, told VTDigger that the corrections commissioner’s presentation mostly assuaged her committee’s concerns about the state’s arrangement with ICE. 

She and her colleagues wanted to know how many people were held and how long, Emmons said. Learning that people apprehended crossing the border near Vermont might be sent far away if not held in the state also helped justify the corrections department’s work, she suggested.

“I think it’s something that we’re going to keep looking at,” Emmons said. “We’ll just keep an eye on it. That’s where we all kind of settled in on it.”



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