UPDATE (Nov. 16, 12:38 p.m. PT) — A regional jail in The Dalles, Oregon, that houses detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has suggested local sheriffs keep their “numbers low” in the jail to make room for immigrant detainees.
The Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility — or NORCOR — has housed immigration detainees since 1999, when the facility first opened. Critics of that process say it violates Oregon’s sanctuary law and have sued the jail.
Documents included in that lawsuit give potential insight into how NORCOR allocates space for ICE detainees.
In a Sept. 29, 2016, email, then-NORCOR Lt. Dan Lindhorst wrote ICE to ask that they increase their number of detainees at the jail.
“I see this morning we are down to 26 ICE detainees,” Lindhorst wrote. “Could you please see if you can get these numbers up. We have been keeping the county numbers low to make room for the 40 detainees that you had asked for. If you are not going to use us to that extent, please let me know that as well so I can advise my sheriffs.”
Less than three hours later, an ICE official wrote back indicating detainees would soon arrive from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.
“Tacoma is working on vetting more detainees to go to NORCOR,” ICE official Larry Peterson wrote. “I will let you know when they are ready for transfer.”
“Thanks, I have been getting pressed for people,” Lindhorst wrote back.
“No problem,” Peterson wrote. “I will keep hounding them for more.”
Lindhorst has since been promoted to NORCOR’s commander. He declined to comment Thursday, citing the pending litigation.
On Friday morning, former jail administrator Bryan Brandenburg, who remains under contract with NORCOR through the end of the year, defended the jail’s approach.
“We don’t lower our county numbers to fit ICE in there,” Brandenburg said. “I know that’s what that email kind of implies. But that’s not the practice and that’s not the policy.”
When asked what the policy is, Brandenburg said there isn’t a written policy, rather it’s the jail’s practice to not “kick people out in order to make room for ICE.”
Brandenburg said he could not explain what Lindhorst meant in his email because the email was not reviewed before it was sent.
“He shouldn’t have said that,” Brandenburg said. “It means he misstated what our policy is.”
NORCOR is the regional jail for Hood River, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties. It also contracts with Benton County to house inmates.
But in recent years, the jail has become particularly reliant on funding from its increasingly lucrative contract with ICE. Last year, the federal agency paid NORCOR more than $900,000 to house detainees, according to the jail’s budget documents. That’s more than 11 percent of the jail’s 2017–18 budget.
The county’s contract with ICE doesn’t guarantee how much the federal agency will use NORCOR. But in 2016, Brandenburg told OPB that ICE does “their best to keep our numbers up a little bit.”
In 2016, Wasco County failed to continue a property tax levy to fund the jail, making the jail even more reliant on its contract with ICE.
“Huge,” Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt said when describing the problem if the jail’s ICE contract went away. “It would be a huge problem.”
Bettencourt said the jail uses a matrix system when the inmate population starts to reach capacity. He said there’s a “very low number of people we matrix.”
In 2015, NORCOR released about 50 people per month through the matrix system, Brandenburg said. He said the number has reduced each year since. In 2018, he said NORCOR has released around 10 county inmates per month.
“Most of those are for medical issues,” he said. “They have some sort of medical issue we can’t handle … all of them have been charged criminally.”
Historically, the jail has had slightly more than 200 beds for adult inmates and detainees. Based on current staffing, it can house between 160 and 180 inmates and detainees, Brandenburg said.
“If we get over that, we initiate the matrix system that just starts pushing people out the door,” Sheriff Bettencourt said. “It’s kind of a grading system; somebody who’s not a threat to the community or themselves, so it’s got to be a pretty low-level crime.”
He said an inmate’s criminal history is also taken into consideration before that person is let out to make room for more serious offenders.
“We think our local bed numbers are adequate,” Bettencourt said.
He said there’s never been a time when the ICE contract has prevented someone arrested locally from getting booked into the jail.
“We’re never not able to take a local person,” he said.
The sheriffs of Hood River, Sherman and Wasco counties did not immediately return requests for comment.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Friday to include comments from NORCOR.