Joliet would vet firm behind immigrant detention center

A plan to build a federal detention center in the Chicago area to house illegal immigrants facing deportation is again under consideration after a previous attempt was blocked by intense opposition from activists.

Joliet officials are in early discussions with the federal government and a private company that would run the facility about possibly locating the center there, said City Manager Thomas Thanas. An earlier plan to build the facility in the nearby village of Crete was rejected by village trustees in June after months of protests.

Immigrant rights activists claimed the private company that would run the site had a record of mistreating detainees. The company, Corrections Corporation of America, has also been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleges that private companies base their profit strategies on trying to maintain high levels of incarceration.

“It’s a for-profit company, so they cut costs where they can, and we’ve seen how those cuts have hurt inmates when it comes to issues like health care,” said Jesse Hoyt, a suburban community organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee rights.

Thanas promised to thoroughly vet the company before agreeing to any deal.

“Those types of allegations, we’ll certainly look into those, I’m not going to dismiss them,” Thanas said.

The company has responded to those claims by saying it has a proven track record with the federal government going back three decades.

The city’s conversations with the company and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are “very preliminary” and have so far only dealt with whether Joliet could be a suitable site, Thanas said. There have been no discussions yet about an exact location or the size of the facility.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the federal agency has identified a need for such a facility in the Chicago area, saying it would further ICE’s effort to keep detainees closer to their families and community resources.

Corrections Corporation of America would only say that it “continues to work closely with ICE in meeting their needs in the region” and refused to get into specifics about any discussions about Joliet. The federal agency did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The center that had been planned for Crete would have had room for nearly 800 detainees. Besides opposition from activists, some residents there were upset at the notion of becoming a prison town.

Thanas doesn’t expect that kind of opposition in Joliet, which has been home to the now-closed Joliet Correctional Center for more than 150 years. He also said the detention facility would bring hundreds of jobs to a city hit hard by the recession.

“I think Joliet has embraced correctional facilities in the past,” he said. “Our history goes back to the pre-Civil War days when the Joliet Correctional Center was commissioned and built during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.”

“In Joliet, we’re not afraid of big projects or unusual projects,” he added.

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