Awaiting Deportation, Immigrants in State Prisons Costing $37 Million a Year

The Colorado Department of Corrections houses 1052 foreign-born prisoners who are slated to be deported upon release, including 410 past their parole eligibility date.
The Colorado Department of Corrections houses 1052 foreign-born prisoners who are slated to be deported upon release, including 410 past their parole eligibility date.
The way Armando Medina sees it, he's exactly the kind of person Donald Trump raised hell about during his run to the White House, the kind of person the new administration most wants to ban from American soil: someone who enters the country illegally, commits crimes, drains resources.

So why is he still here, costing Colorado taxpayers $37,000 a year to feed, house and care for him?

A native of Honduras, Medina is currently serving a twenty-year sentence in the Colorado Department of Corrections for drug possession. He has an ICE detainer, which means that the DOC will turn him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation processing upon his release from prison. A 2011 state law was supposed to make it easier for nonviolent offenders with ICE detainers such as Medina to be whisked out of the country as soon as they are eligible for parole. But despite the law, despite Medina's almost unblemished conduct record while behind bars, despite his minimum-restrictive security status, despite the evident wishes of the President of the United States, the Colorado State Board of Parole recently rejected his application for release, telling him to try again in another year.

"It defies logic," Medina wrote in a recent letter to Westword. "I have no write-ups. I'm program compliant. While Colorado legislators struggle to find money for roads and schools, the governor's appointed parole board is squandering tax dollars by holding illegal immigrant prisoners longer than necessary."

click to enlarge Armando Medina says the parole board's denial of his application to be paroled and deported "defies logic." - COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Armando Medina says the parole board's denial of his application to be paroled and deported "defies logic."
Colorado Department of Corrections
According to the most current population figures, the DOC has 1,052 immigrant inmates with ICE detainers, costing the prison system approximately $37 million a year. Of those, 410 are past their parole eligibility date; that is, they've already been turned down for parole at least once. Data supplied by the DOC doesn't distinguish between those prisoners who were convicted of violent crimes — a group that almost never receives parole the first or second time around — and those who are serving time for drug or property crimes. But if the breakdown between violent and lesser felons is proportionately the same among those with ICE detainers as it is in the total state prison population, then at least a couple hundred of the foreign-born felons fall into the same category as Medina — nonviolent, parole-eligible inmates who could be deported tomorrow with little risk to the public.

One of the aims of Senate Bill 11-241 was to reduce the costly logjam of aliens in state prisons by designating a "presumption of parole" for nonviolent, low-risk offenders with ICE detainers. The final decision over whether to release any particular inmate still rests with the discretion of the parole board, but since the law was passed six years ago, the number of deportation-bound inmates in the system has dropped by a third. DOC officials say it's difficult to measure the direct impact of the new law, as the overall prison population was declining during that same period, and the number of discretionary paroles increased.

Ironically, there are built-in incentives, from certain perspectives, to keeping ICE detainees in the state prison system. Their presence not only boosts the overall prison population by about 5 percent — helping to keep the state's struggling private prison contractors in business — but results in modest payments to the DOC from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), a federal program that seeks to defray the cost of housing undocumented alien felons in state facilities. The state prison system received $2 million from SCAAP in 2016 and has pulled in $66 million from the program since 1995.

Colorado parole board chairman Joe Morales couldn't be reached for comment on why so many prisoners slated for deportation have been refused parole. In some cases, the rejection undoubtedly has to do with the nature of the offense; among the 410 "deportables" who are parole-eligible are 44 sex offenders serving sentences that include provisions for lifetime supervision. Some prosecutors have maintained that deportation provides no guarantee that a particular criminal won't slip back into the country, as in the case of Norlan Estrada-Reyes, the Honduran man accused in a recent Denver hit-and-run fatality who was in the country illegally after a previous deportation.

But the DOC's own figures indicate that the recidivism rate of ICE detainees is near zero, "regardless of whether they received parole presumption or whether they were released under discretionary or mandatory parole," according to the parole board's 2016 annual report.

Medina says he has no intention of returning to the USA once he is finally deported. "Deporting illegal immigrant prisoners as soon as they are eligible for parole imposes zero risk to the public," he insists. "After all, President Trump will be beefing up border control and building his wall."

In any event, the transition from state prison to the custody of ICE, which often uses private contractors to house detainees, doesn't guarantee a speedy return to one's country of origin. This week, U.S. District Senior Judge John Kane certified a class action lawsuit that pits tens of thousands of former and current detainees held at the Aurora ICE facility against its private operator, GEO; the plaintiffs, some of whom were found to reside legally in the U.S. after months in detention, claim they were required to perform cleaning and maintenance jobs in the facility for no pay, under threat of solitary confinement — and in violation of federal laws prohibiting human trafficking and forced labor.  The suit seeks millions of dollars in damages.

"American immigration policy is too often driven by the profit motives of the private corporations that we pay to round up and detain our immigrants," said Nino DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, the nonprofit group helping to represent the immigrant detainees, in a prepared statement.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast