Etowah County’s ICE detention facility now “about jobs,” not money

Updated: Oct. 2, 2019 at 8:02 PM CDT
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ETOWAH COUNTY, Ala. (WBRC) - Almost since the day it opened in the late 90′s, the ICE facility inside the Etowah County Detention Center has been the subject of protests or controversy.

Critics, including the sponsors of the Shutdown Etowah website and campaign, point to long detention times and some of the highest rates of complaints by detainees in the country. But Etowah County’s new sheriff says much of that criticism is unfounded.

“I’ve met with several different protest groups, thankful to say they’ve been peaceful, I try to understand where they’re coming from,” says Sheriff Jonathon Horton. “A lot of times I feel like they’ve been given misinformation and once they get the correct information and realize things may not be the way they think they are.”

The facility used to house detainees for an average of nearly 6 months, but now houses short term detainees for what Sheriff Horton says is an average of 3-5 days.

“But that costs us because immigration doesn’t pay us for the last day,” says Horton. “So when we went from housing long term detainees from 5-6 months to short term detainees on 3 days, we lost a 3rd of our pay.”

Critics have long maintained the county’s contract with the federal government to keep these detainees was a money grab for a relatively poor county--and when this arrangement first started it was.

“Back then the contracts were a lot less, therefore there was more revenue, which created a lot more equipment and training,” Horton says. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Sheriff Horton says the county will have to pay about $100,000 this budget cycle to break even on the cost of housing these detainees, but he thinks it’s worth it.

“I look at it as more of a benefit in that you hate to see people lose jobs, and you have a local economy that appears on the verge of possibly losing jobs at Goodyear and other places, as tough as it is to get people jobs, it’s just the jobs is what it’s about right now,” Horton says. “We might have $100,000 we have to give with that money to provide those services, but that’s 49 families, 49 different groups of people that can go out and return money into revenue and through sales tax and occupational tax and various different ways. The jobs is what we do it for, and saying that, it’s worth that. Because I would hate to see 49 people lose their jobs.”

Sheriff Horton says in the 7 months since he took office, his ICE facility has passed 3 federal inspections.

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