The Suffolk sheriff’s department said Tuesday that it will end its controversial relationship with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement so it can provide rehabilitative services to more women who will soon be housed at a South End jail.
The Suffolk County House of Correction, commonly called South Bay, houses scores of ICE detainees. The facility this week will start receiving pretrial and sentenced women under a new agreement with Essex, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties, the sheriff’s department said.
The arrangement with other county sheriff’s offices is aimed at “achieving greater regionalization and delivery of critical services for what has become the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the country,” the Suffolk sheriff’s department said in a statement.
Suffolk Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins attributed the rise in the number of women incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system to substance abuse, homelessness, mental health issues, and “relationships that have compromised them.”
According to Tompkins, gender-specific programming allows his office to help address issues of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and substance use disorders.
“This is not about ICE, this is not about Trump, this is not about the federal government, this is about saving lives,” he said.
The decision was grounded in helping people get back on their feet, according to Tompkins. “To do that, I need space,” he said.
The South Bay facility houses about 1,200 detainees, according to Tompkins. Of that number about 200 are ICE detainees, who are all housed in the same building, he said.
The move will allow his office to house 200 to 250 more women at South Bay by the end of the month, he said. There are 80 to 100 women at the facility now, he said.
ICE first signed its contract with the sheriff’s department in 2003, authorities said. Tompkins’s office has not received any compensation from the federal government for ICE detainees since 2009, he said.
The federal agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, will complete its relocation of detainees from South Bay by mid-December, according to the sheriff’s office.
Marcos D. Charles, ICE’s acting field office director for enforcement and removal operations in Boston, said the agency was disappointed to learn about the sheriff’s department’s decision to “end their longstanding, cooperative partnership agreement.”
ICE detention at the South End jail has drawn controversy in recent months. Over the summer, about 1,000 Jewish activists and others marched from the New England Holocaust Memorial to the jail to protest immigrant detention. Eighteen protesters were arrested.
Demonstrators have also protested ICE arrangements at facilities in Bristol County and Central Falls, R.I., in recent months.
In the summer, Laura Rotolo, an attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that the South End jail is one of four facilities in the state that has contracts with ICE. Rotolo said more than half of people who are in ICE detention nationwide do not have criminal records; the ones at Suffolk County are either in deportation proceedings or have lost their cases and are waiting to be deported.
However, an ICE spokesman said in an e-mail Tuesday that the “vast majority of the detainees” at South Bay are “high level category offenders” such as aggravated felons and gang members.
ICE is exploring options that could include moving detainees to other facilities in New England, said the spokesman. Its partners in the region still include the sheriff’s offices in Bristol and Plymouth counties. The Suffolk decision could possibly mean the South Bay detainees are moved to “facilities outside the region” because of a lack of beds, the spokesman said.
Tompkins said that ICE has a 60-day window where it can still “drop people off at my facility,” Tompkins said.
His decision was lauded by local civil rights attorneys.
Oren Nimni, a staff attorney for the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the decision “is a really encouraging step forward.”
“Local law enforcement shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing federal civil immigration law,” he said Tuesday night.
Nimni said that where the Suffolk detainees are moved to is “ a little bit of a concern.”
“One of the concerns is people might be sent to other detention facilities in states that are far from their families and where they have less support and immigration courts are less likely to grant them relief,” he said.
Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the sheriff’s decision “presents an opportunity for ICE to release needlessly-detained people who want nothing more than to return to their families and to their communities.”
“Given the Trump administration’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant track record, it is more than understandable that any law enforcement agency would sever its relationship with ICE,” said Rose in a statement.