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Yolo County appears ready to end federal contract for immigrant teen detention center

Yolo County supervisors appear ready to terminate a decade-old contract with federal immigration authorities to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers in a high-security detention center in Woodland.

This fall, the five-member Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether to extend the county’s contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which can detain up to two dozen unaccompanied migrant teenagers in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility.

The Yolo facility is one of two high-security centers for immigrant teenagers nationwide and houses unaccompanied minors who “pose a danger to self or others” or could be charged with a criminal offense, federal immigration guidelines state. The second is in central Virginia, while a third high-security facility in northern Virginia ended its contract with the federal government last year.

Since the contract began, the Yolo detention center has housed about 800 teenagers who entered the United States without a parent, most of them from Central America and Mexico.

Now the relationship appears ready to end, in part because Yolo County supervisors and other officials have questioned whether it’s appropriate to collaborate with what some call an “erratic” federal government to lock up migrant children — and argue the center, which is nearly empty, could be put to better use.

A minimum of three supervisors must vote “yes” in order to extend the contract with ORR. One board member, Oscar Villegas, is expected to recuse himself because he works with the Board of State and Community Corrections. That leaves four supervisors available to vote.

In interviews, supervisors Don Saylor and Gary Sandy criticized the contract, and indicated they would likely vote against the extension, effectively killing a relationship Yolo County has maintained with the federal government since 2008.

“I’m leaning strongly against renewing the contract,” Sandy said.

As the Trump administration has faced criticism for its treatment of asylum-seeking migrants in detention camps, the Yolo facility has itself faced scrutiny for its treatment of teenagers under its care, as well as other staffing and finance issues.

A recent report by disability-rights activists claimed guards at the Yolo facility were using pepper spray on wards and failing to provide adequate special education services. A grand jury report last year criticized the facility for failing to report assaults on staff members and an escape attempt, and a state audit said Yolo County had undercharged the federal government for all the services it provided.

County officials also have been critical of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, saying in 2017 that it sent teenagers to the facility without proof they were members of the MS-13 gang — an affiliation that requires placement at a high-security facility. All seven were eventually moved to less restrictive facilities.

The ORR also came under criticism for sending an abused Honduran teenager to the high-security Yolo facility for a year before he was granted asylum in 2017.

Approximately 10,000 unaccompanied youths are housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in houses, shelters and detention centers across the U.S., according to the agency. California has capacity for 450 of them, including as many as 24 in the Yolo facility.

“At what point do you become complicit with the federal government’s treatment of immigrants by housing young people in detention centers?” Saylor said.

Saylor and Sandy said they became disillusioned about continuing to work with ORR when the agency announced in May that it would stop funding educational and recreational programs, which the facility is required by law to provide.

Although the decision was reversed within a month, Saylor called the initial decision “chilling.” Sandy agreed.

“That goes to the heart of what I see as the erratic, chaotic way that ORR is administered by the federal government,” Sandy said, calling it “the epitome of fiscal mismanagement.”

If the contract is not approved this fall, it will expire in January, Saylor said. Between now and then, case managers at the center would stop accepting new transfers, work to reunify youths in the center with sponsors, and transfer remaining youths to other facilities across the country.

Facility nearly empty

Critics, including facility administrators and county officials, say that the current center is operating far under capacity and could better service the county in another way.

In 2019, the facility received about $3.2 million from the county to cover care for local youths, and a $6.7 million grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement for unaccompanied minors, but it remains nearly empty. The 90-bed center housed fewer than 17 youths per day in the first quarter of this year — a number that includes migrant teens and local juvenile offenders.

“It’s a $10 million program,” Saylor said. “Today, there are 12 kids there.”

Facility administrators attribute the slump in numbers of Yolo youths detained in the center to shifting attitudes toward juvenile delinquency nationwide. In the first quarter of 2019, an average of 4.5 local youths lived in a 30-bed pod.

Julie Burns, the director of the ORR-funded program in the Yolo facility, said that the number of teenagers under her care fluctuates rapidly — and that she and her staff accept cases only when they think that a high-security setting is best for them.

“We reject 30 to 40 percent of transfer requests,” Burns said.

Such transfer requests often come from lower-security facilities. If Burns and her staff don’t think a teenager will be best served in the Yolo setting, they’ll deny the request.

Allegations of abuse

The Yolo facility has been under pressure from outside groups who claim the facility is not equipped to deal with teenagers who enter with mental health disabilities.

In a report released earlier this year, activists with Disability Rights California alleged that the federal guidelines unfairly target teenagers with mental disabilities and fail to provide them with services they need.

“When we went to Yolo, a high percentage of the children had some type of mental health disability, from PTSD to suicidal ideation,” said Pilar Gonzalez, an attorney with Disability Rights California who visited all nine ORR facilities in California and co-authored the report.

“These guidelines are screening for minors with mental health and behavior issues,” Gonzalez added, “funneling minors with mental health disabilities into more restrictive environments.” such as Yolo County’s high-security facility.

Saylor, the Board of Supervisors chair, agreed.

“Kids who are not criminally involved should not be in custody facilities,” Saylor said. “We are still rejecting referrals from ORR for kids who are not appropriate for this kind of setting.”

Disability Rights California also condemned the facility’s use of pepper spray.

“Five of the eleven children interviewed in September 2018 reported that they had been sprayed,” the report said. “One teenaged boy reported being sprayed with pepper spray on his face and body. Another describe being sprayed in the middle of class in front of his peers.”

But administrators said that since then, halving the staff-to-youth ratio and emphasizing nonviolent intervention has dramatically dropped the number of pepper spray uses.

Since January of this year, pepper spray has been deployed three times, compared with 11 times during the same period in 2018, said facility superintendent Oscar Ruiz. Both Ruiz and Burns began their current positions in early 2018 and have revised practices around staff training, intervention strategies, and level of interaction between staff and detained teenagers.

“Our culture here in the department is changing,” Ruiz said. “We’re speaking a different language. Staff are responding in a positive way.”’

Sharing proposed

Meanwhile, the county is considering other options for the facility.

The county’s chief probation officer, Daniel Fruchtenicht, proposes filling the center’s often-vacant booking space with inmates from adult jails in the same complex, which would ease the upcoming renovation of the nearby Leinberger and Monroe jail facilities. (A previous push by Fruchtenicht to shut down the facility failed to win enough supervisor support.)

When construction is complete, Fruchtenicht has suggested turning the juvenile detention facility into a transitional program for youths ages 18-25. At that point, the ORR contract would likely be terminated, and the small number of Yolo youth offenders would be shipped to a nearby county, likely Sacramento, for detention.

Fruchtenicht’s plan faces a problem: Under the state Board of State and Community Corrections, it is illegal for adults and minors to live in the same facility. It doesn’t happen anywhere in California, said Adam Lwin, a spokesman for BSCC.

But Fruchtenicht and his staff think they found a compelling loophole to the rule: “sight and sound separation.” If inmate populations cannot see or hear each other, then they may as well be in separate facilities, Fruchtenicht said.

In July, Ruiz, the facility superintendent, submitted a letter of intent to the Board of State and Community Corrections, including a copy of the facility’s policies and an architectural plan for renovations to make the “co-located facility” possible.

The BSCC has no current process in place for how to deal with such an application, Lwin said. As of July 25, Lwin said he hoped to work with colleagues — many of whom are on summer vacation — to create an appropriate review process within a few weeks.

The county Board of Supervisors will next hold a strategic planning meeting on Tuesday to review the treatment of juveniles in the local criminal justice system, and include discussions on the facility’s future.

The Sacramento Bee’s Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks contributed to this report.

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Elliot Wailoo, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in prison systems, police, and education. He is originally from New Jersey.
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