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Closed prison in Estancia may hold detained immigrants

The Torrance County Detention Facility, which closed its doors less than two years ago, may reopen to house more than 700 immigrant detainees. (Rory McClannahan/Albuquerque Journal)

The Torrance County Detention Facility, which closed its doors less than two years ago, may reopen to house more than 700 immigrant detainees. (Rory McClannahan/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Less than two years after closing its doors, a privately run prison in Estancia is on the verge of being reopened to house more than 700 immigrant detainees – along with a smaller number of local inmates.

Torrance County Commission members will vote Wednesday on whether to authorize the county manager to sign a contract agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use the Torrance County Detention Facility.

New Mexico has been at the front lines of a roiling national debate on immigration, and the reopening of the facility could ignite new debate over the use of state and local resources.

The proposed contract would call for ICE to pay the county nearly $2 million per month for use of the prison in its first year, with the price increasing in future years. The county would then sign a separate contract with a prominent private prison operator, CoreCivic, to operate the facility and hire staff.

The October 2017 closure of the Torrance County prison due to a persistently small inmate population was an economic blow to the rural area since the prison was one of Estancia’s largest employers. The closure was also a hit to the county’s tax base, Torrance County Manager Wayne Johnson said.

“Having that 900-bed facility stand empty didn’t make sense for anyone involved,” said Johnson, a former state auditor and Bernalillo County commissioner.

He said only adult male immigrants would be held at the detention center – not unaccompanied minors or entire families. The immigrant detainees would be housed separately from other inmates at the facility.

The proposed contract stipulates ICE would pay the county a fixed rate for up to 714 immigrant detainees – and more for each additional individual housed.

However, critics say New Mexico cities should not rely on private prisons as a lifeline and should instead should be more creative in bolstering their economies.

“For me personally, it’s really concerning that they’re considering reopening it,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces. “I’m completely opposed to private prisons. They should not exist in our state.”

Rubio was one of two Democratic lawmakers who proposed a measure during this year’s 60-day legislative session that would have restricted federal contracts for immigration detention centers and given the state more oversight authority over such facilities.

But that bill, which analysts said could have turned New Mexico into a “sanctuary state” in the eyes of the federal government, failed to gain traction and ultimately stalled in a House committee.

Rubio said Monday she plans to keep working on the measure and intends to bring it back for next year’s legislative session, or possibly the 2021 session.

New Mexico already has two private detention centers with current federal contracts to hold immigrant detainees: the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral and Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan. The Cibola County facility is also operated by CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Several top-ranking New Mexico Democrats last year returned campaign contributions they received from the private prison company – along with another company – or donated them to nonprofit groups.

Those Democrats include Attorney General Hector Balderas, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is running for an open Senate seat next year.

Meanwhile, some immigrants detained at the New Mexico facilities have complained about conditions and lack of medical treatment, along with allegations of harassment and discrimination against gay and transgender detainees.

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