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In recent years, four Mass. jails got $164 million in federal money to house ICE detainees

Massachusetts has received more than $160 million in funding from federal immigration authorities since 2012, mostly in exchange for keeping and transporting ICE detainees in jails run by four Massachusetts sheriff’s departments, a Globe review has found.Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

The state has received more than $160 million in funding from federal immigration authorities since 2012, mostly in exchange for keeping and transporting ICE detainees in jails run by four Massachusetts sheriff’s departments, a Globe review has found.

The sum, brought into the state’s coffers through controversial contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has raised the eyebrows of some advocates and immigration attorneys who oppose the agreements and think there are better alternatives.

The sheriff’s offices, meanwhile, have defended the arrangements, with at least two departments saying their relationship with ICE has made Massachusetts residents safer.

The funding in question stemmed from agreements between ICE and the sheriff’s offices for Plymouth, Bristol, Franklin, and Suffolk counties, according to spreadsheets and invoices obtained through public records requests. Suffolk announced in October that it would end its relationship with ICE so it can provide rehabilitative services to more women who will soon be housed at its South End jail commonly referred to as South Bay.

Matt Cameron, an East Boston-based immigration lawyer, said there was “no good public safety justification” for local sheriff’s departments to house ICE detainees.


“It’s so much money,” he said. “When I see this, I see federal waste.”

Cameron favored alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, as to a way to ensure people show up to court.

“There are so many ways to do this without separating families,” he said.

He added, “It’s very concerning that this kind of taxpayer money is keeping them in there for months and months.”

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, favored all county and state entities immediately ending agreements with federal immigration authorities.

“It is not aligned with the values and interests of Massachusetts taxpayers,” he said of the funding.

Espinoza-Madrigal acknowledged that there is a benefit to having local residents detained near where they live, close to relatives and attorneys.


“But this interest in keeping detainees is really trumped by a significant state and taxpayer interest in avoiding complicity with the federal government enforcement mechanism,” he said.

He thought detained immigrants who face civil, not criminal, violations should be released using options like bail or required regular check-ins with immigration officials. Like Cameron, he thought ankle bracelets and GPS monitoring were realistic alternatives to detention.

“The idea that these immigrants have to be held in detention facilities is simply not true,” he said. “There are options to detaining them, which are viable right here in Massachusetts.”

Philip L. Torrey, managing attorney for Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, said that immigration detention has not always been a part of the country’s immigration enforcement system.

“It’s concerning that in just the last few decades it has become the centerpiece of immigration enforcement system,” said Torrey.

Torrey’s program recently completed a study that found that there was a “potentially flawed accounting system across Massachusetts sheriffs’ offices that fails to fully account for all of the costs associated with immigration detention at their facilities in a consistent and comprehensive manner.”

“There is a concerning lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight in the immigration detention systems in Massachusetts,” read the report.

However, Jonathan Darling, the spokesman for the Bristol sheriff’s office, maintained the costs of holding ICE detainees were not out-distanced by the daily reimbursement rate from the federal agency. He said anyone in custody of the department — an inmate or an ICE detainee, costs the department $94.50 per day. ICE, he said, pays the office $98 per day for holding its detainees. The costs include things like security staff, meals, medical, electricity, and heat, he said.


In Franklin County, Sheriff Christopher Donelan, said his office averages 25 ICE detainees and that his staffing would remain the same whether his office was holding the detainees or not.

“Losing 25 inmates would not result in any layoffs or staffing changes, so this [is] extra money for the Commonwealth,” he said.

Others were less sure.

John Birtwell, a spokesman for the Plymouth sheriff’s office, said in an e-mail, “It would take a Jesuit scholar to debate whether or not Massachusetts taxpayers are benefiting from ICE detentions or bearing an additional burden.”

All reimbursement revenue from contracts between Massachusetts sheriffs’ departments and the federal government is deposited in the state’s general fund, according to the Executive Office for Administration and Finance. And while the state Legislature allocates funding for county sheriffs annually, the Harvard study states that “it is impossible to confidently track which, if any [of the allocations] are related to immigration detention.”

The report also found that the number of ICE detainees incarcerated in Massachusetts facilities has dropped among all sheriff’s office in recent years, with the exception being Plymouth. That office has seen a net increase since 2017, according to the study.

In an e-mail, ICE spokesman John Mohan said the agency does not comment on the details of agreements negotiated with facilities that are contracted to house ICE detainees.


Mohan did say ICE values “the important working relationships we have built and continue to maintain with all of the Sheriff’s Departments we have agreements with in the region.”

“These trusted law enforcement partners and many of those in the communities they serve have repeatedly and publicly supported these relationships with the agency, recognizing the critical role that the housing of our detainees in their facilities plays in keeping their communities safer every day,” he said. “We look forward to continuing these critical relationships.”

In Suffolk, where the sheriff’s office boasts a $120 million budget, the department billed ICE for more than $48 million since 2012 for keeping ICE detainees, renting out administrative space to the federal agency, and “miscellaneous” costs. The department has billed ICE for more than $114 million since 2003.

In Plymouth, the sheriff’s department has billed ICE for more than $50 million since 2012, and more than $109 million since 2003. That includes $8.7 million in billings for fiscal year 2019. That office’s annual budget is $58 million.

Birtwell, a spokesman for the office, said in a statement the agency’s jail, unlike any other in the state, “was designed and built as a mixed use, mixed agency structure” that can house inmates from the county and state, as well as federal detainees.

Plymouth Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald, believes his agency’s relationship with immigration authorities has “helped to protect the residents of Plymouth County,” according to Birtwell.


“He has said his constituents expect him and his department to work cooperatively with other government and public safety agencies,” he said. “That also extends to our mission statement — which is to securely house anyone in our care in a safe and humane manner.”

Birtwell said the office is aware that “some constituents favor discontinuing our relationship with ICE.”

The Bristol sheriff’s office received more than $49 million from 2012 to last October; $7 million for transportation costs, and $42 million for keeping the agency’s detainees. Its annual budget tops $47 million.

In a statement, Darling, a spokesman for the Bristol sheriff’s department, said that office “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with ICE and every other law enforcement organization that works day-in and day-out to keep the public as safe as possible.”

“The public is more safe when law enforcement agencies work together,” he said.

He added, “They have to be held somewhere, so it’s more cost-effective for detainees to be housed closer to home than to be transported to whatever state they’re being sent to.”

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson is chairing President Trump’s reelection campaign in Massachusetts and has been an outspoken supporter of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.

In Western Massachusetts, the Franklin sheriff’s office received more than $17 million from the federal agency between 2012 and late October of last year. That figure is just about equal to its $17.2 million annual budget.

Donelan, who has served as Franklin sheriff since 2011, said the contract existed prior to his tenure. He said he maintains the contract because the money goes into the general fund and cancelling it would “spoil our relationship with the Legislature.”

“This contract has existed for well over a decade, it rises above the current politics of this issue,” he said.

Danny McDonald can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.