JEROME — As Jerome County officials weigh the pros and cons of leasing excess jail beds to interested agencies, two out of three commissioners say they would prefer to avoid a controversial deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement if possible.
The U.S. Marshals Service and Idaho Department of Corrections have emerged as potential lessees in recent weeks, as the county approaches one year of waiting on a fiercely protested contract to rent 50 beds to ICE.
Meanwhile, ICE has expressed renewed interest in a contract after the Times-News reported last month that the county was considering other options, according to Sheriff Doug McFall.
But that interest may not be mutual for all county officials. Commissioners Charlie Howell and Roger Morley say a deal with ICE would be their last choice if presented with proposals from all three agencies.
Commissioner Cathy Roemer maintains that she would need to see the final terms and conditions of any and all contracts before forming a preference.
“Basically for me it comes down to, how would the taxpayer want us to do this?” Roemer said at a Tuesday meeting with McFall and Security Services Commander Maricela Ibarra.
ICE and the Marshals are expected to pay comparable rates of around $75 per bed per day. The state’s official rate is $45, although there is potential for the state legislature to bump that number up to as high as $60 this year.
“For me, the goal is to create more revenue if we can, if it fits the program,” Roemer clarified in a post-meeting interview. “I think the taxpayers expect that of us as a business organization.”
Morley disputes the idea that money should be a top priority when making a decision.
“The economic factors, really, to me, it’s not truly economics,” Morley said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to make our jail pay. It’s not a paying facility. It’s not a business.”
If given a choice, Morley said he would choose the Marshals first and the state second.
“For ICE to set up a major presence here would be tenuous at best,” Morley said, noting that one-third of county residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. “It’s scaring the hell out of our population here in Jerome.”
On Dec. 20, Morley reached out to representatives from the Marshals Service — who he described as “real excited” at the prospect of renting bed space — before turning official communication over to the Sheriff’s Office.
Despite the lower potential for revenue, Howell still favors a contract with IDOC to take overflow from state prisons.
“Even from a business stance, we always have preferred customers,” Howell said. “I’d rather take locals first.”
One obstacle standing in the way of a deal with IDOC: concern that the jail isn’t properly staffed or built to handle a large population of state inmates, who are thought to be harder to control than county prisoners or ICE detainees. Those concerns could be alleviated somewhat if the county is given greater control over which inmates it takes, an idea that IDOC director Henry Atencio has indicated he may be open to, McFall said Tuesday.
If the county can avoid housing “problem inmates,” Morley said, he has “no problem at all” with renting to the state.
And while his preference wouldn’t be to lease to ICE, he isn’t ruling the possibility out entirely.
“I’ve got an obligation to my citizens here to pay the jail off,” Morley said. “If I have to pay it off with immigration money, well, that’s the way it’ll have to be. But I’ll tell you right now, I would rather we pay our jail off in a hundred different other ways.”