Farmville – the home of Longwood University, and site of this week’s vice presidential debate. And also a private detention center for hundreds of illegal immigrants. Earlier this year, officials from the United States Department of Justice announced the department’s decision to discontinue the use of private prisons for federal prisoners. But even under the new policy, immigration detention centers like the one in Farmville remain unaffected. WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae gives us a closer look at the facility and how it operates.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Washington Field Office is located in Farmville, Virginia.
MATTHEW MUNROE: The Farmville facility is very different than what most people would consider a traditional jail environment.
Matthew Munroe is assistant field office director and says out of more than 500 current detainees, well over 90% have criminal convictions. But after having served their time, these detainees are no longer federal prisoners per se, but rather illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.
MUNROE: We are detaining individuals because, yes, some of them are threats to the community and are public safety risks but the primary functionality is we detain people to affect their removal from the United States. Because these people are not in a punitive functionality setting, they are provided a higher level of benefits and programs than a lot of people who are serving punitive sentences.
According to Munroe, those programs range from second language classes, to GED instruction, religious services and even volunteer opportunities.
MUNROE: We provide them medical care, mental health care if it's required, access to alcoholics anonymous, a GED program.
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would discontinue the use of private prisons for federal prisoners. The decision came after it was determined private prisons were both less safe and less effective. As it stands, the decision does not affect private immigration facilities like the one in Farmville. But that could change as well. A statement from the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson reads:
“I directed our Homeland Security Advisory Council to evaluate whether the immigration detention operations conducted by ICE should move in the same direction. Specifically, I have asked to establish a Subcommittee to review our current policy and practices concerning the use of private immigration detention and evaluate whether this practice should be eliminated.”
While not commenting on the issue of private versus federal operation, Munroe says safety at the Washington field office is a top priority and the facility continues to operate under the highest detention standards.
MUNROE: Detainees are classified based on criminal history, past disciplinary history, and all of that information is used to determine a classification level for them. They can be anywhere from what we consider a low classified detainee to a high classified detainee and then detainees are housed with similar classification levels.
But, he says, despite all necessary precautions, incidents do happen.
MUNROE: We do have the guards that are inside the dorms and the program areas with the detainees and it's just a matter of detainees and individuals getting along with each other. There are, unfortunately, personality conflicts and we have to do the best to manage it as we can.
With a current capacity of 642, the Farmville facility is looking to expand its population. The Secretary of Homeland Security is expected to receive a final review of ICE private facilities no later than November 30th.