Howard County Detention Center
Howard County Detention Center (Photo by: Nate Pesce / Patuxent Publishing)

All of the federal immigration inmates at the Howard County Detention Center wear dark blue jumpsuits. They are given three meals a day and the option of going to the library during the week.

Detainees dropped off by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement usually stay in either one of two units — both of which have at least 34 beds, four showers, two picnic-style benches, two televisions and three phones that sit next to a large, white board with phone numbers to embassies around the world.

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The detainees have something else in common, too — they have all been “criminally involved,” Howard County officials say.

While some centers, like the Worcester County Jail, will hold any detainee picked up by ICE, Howard stipulates its detention center in Jessup only accept those under certain conditions. They detain undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, validated gang members, deported felons who have illegally made their way back to the United States and people charged with jailable offenses.

The longstanding contract between the county and ICE is a “good public safety policy” as “it takes people who are safety threats and removes them from the community,” said Jack Kavanagh, director of Howard’s detention facility. Kavanagh said the center does not hold women or children ICE detainees.

But Nick Steiner, who works on immigrant rights at the ACLU of Maryland, said ICE detainees at the Howard center are not all dangerous criminals.

Some have "pending charges but they aren’t really criminals” because they haven’t been convicted of anything yet, Steiner said.

“They haven’t had their day in court," he added. "People are arrested all the time for things they didn’t do, and the only place they can prove their innocence is in court.”

Kavanagh did not provide a specific breakdown for which category each immigration detainee came in under, but said the center has admitted 5,135 ICE detainees since 2010.

The initial agreement to house detainees in the Howard facility was first signed under the discretion of former County Executive Charles Ecker in 1995 with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. When federal immigration migrated to the Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, the contract was transferred to ICE and has been updated and re-affirmed by former executives Ken Ulman and Allan Kittleman.

The agreement allows Howard’s detention center to operate as a hotel of sorts. The operation holding ICE detainees is run alongside its day-to-day operation.

Howard County charges ICE $110 per day per detainee. Kavanagh did not provide a detailed information as to where ICE detainees were picked up but said they were not only from Maryland.

Between mid-2013 and 2019, the contract generated more than $14 million in revenue, an average of $2 million per year, according to figures provided by Kavanagh. The county anticipates it will earn $2.647 million from the past fiscal year. The detention center’s budget this past fiscal year was $19.68 million.

Kavanagh said the agreement is “fiscally prudent” so long as it offsets the facility’s ever-increasing expenses including correctional officer salaries, utilities, medical services and food.

Last December, Kittleman signed an updated contract to increase the daily rate by $20.

Only two other detention centers in Maryland hold ICE detainees: Frederick and Worcester counties.

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Worcester generates more revenue from its ICE contract than Howard does.

ICE pays Worcester County $87.11 per detainee per day and, since mid-2013, has generated $31.497 million in revenue, according to Worcester County spokeswoman Kim Moses. The county anticipates it will receive $5.12 million from the last fiscal year. Worcester has held 5,140 ICE detainees since mid-2016. Last fiscal year, they held 2,129.

A spokeswoman from Frederick County did not respond to requests for comment.

ICE withdrew from its contract with Anne Arundel County in January after newly elected County Executive Steuart Pittman proposed using money from the program to pay for legal assistance for the detainees.

Howard County Indivisible, a progressive group opposed to the policies of President Donald Trump, has expressed concern about the existence of the contract.

In a phone interview earlier this month, Tammy Spengler and Laurie Liskin, co-chairs of Howard County Indivisible’s immigration arm, said they are “increasingly concerned” with the practices of ICE that are “creating a sense of terror."

The federal agency told Howard police it would conduct “criminal enforcement” in Columbia late last month. ICE has become more politicized under the Trump administration largely because of a policy of separating children from their parents who illegally cross the border. Their prolonged detention has been criticized by civil rights groups around the country that have raised concern about access to showers and beds.

Spengler and Liskin acknowledged that Howard does not hold women or children ICE detainees but questioned why Howard has financial ties to the agency at all.

“We would prefer Howard does not have any contracts with ICE because of the way they treat immigrants,” they said. They said they don’t want the county “to be complicit with the abhorrent policies of ICE." They also expressed concern that ICE detainees in Howard could be being held for "non-serious, nonviolent” crimes.

In Maryland, people can be jailed for felonies and some nonviolent misdemeanors.

Republican Councilman David Yungmann believes “criticism of this longstanding arrangement is driven by a lack of understanding or a desire to politicize public safety.”

“An individual meeting one of the criteria for detention in this facility is a threat to our residents, and removing them from our community is basic law enforcement," Yungmann said. “Suggesting that a criminal’s illegal immigration status affords them a more lenient set of rules than a legal citizen is irresponsible."

Becca Niburg, an immigration attorney who worked for nearly a decade as a federal immigration officer, said she “would hate to see" the detention center close because its central location is a benefit to attorneys and families. The other ICE detention centers are located in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

The more central location “means families don’t have as great a distance" to travel to visit, Niburg said, and it’s "cheaper for attorneys to get” to Howard’s detention center, which is roughly 10 miles from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball declined to comment specifically on the county’s contract with ICE, but in a statement said the county “does not assist ICE in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Howard County police officers do not ask residents about their immigration status, nor do they contact ICE if they learn of violations of federal immigration laws.”

In the wake of Trump’s election, the Democrat co-sponsored controversial legislation that would have made Howard a sanctuary for immigrants. The measure attracted national attention and largely targeted police practices, stipulating officers not ask residents about their citizenship status.

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The original bill also would have prevented county employees from assisting in the “enforcement of the immigration and nationality laws” or assisting with “enforcement in the investigation or arrest of a person for a civil or criminal violation of immigration law." The bill provided exemption for already existing agreements, including the longstanding contract between ICE and Howard County. The measure was opposed by former police Chief Gary Gardner who said it would compromise public safety and threaten federal funding.

As county executive, Kittleman vetoed Ball’s measure after it narrowly passed the County Council. The Republican called for a review of existing policies. Under Kittleman, the police formalized a policy of not asking about citizenship.

In a written statement, councilman Opel Jones, whose district includes the detention center, said he supports the police department’s policy but expressed concern about ICE activity in Columbia. The Democrat said ICE’s presence “may result in unintended tangential arrests due to possible racial profiling.” He also said he is “interested in reevaluating our current contract between the county and ICE.”

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