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What we know about ICE detainees in Oregon and the jail that holds them
Author: Sara Roth
Published: 11:05 AM PST December 16, 2017
INVESTIGATIONS 3 Articles

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THE DALLES, Ore. – Mustafa Tanin was a young lieutenant in the Afghan army when he came to Texas in 2015 for language training with the U.S. Military.

Tanin had no criminal history in Afghanistan or the United States when he left the training site four months later. According to court records, Tanin was seeking asylum in the U.S. because of death threats from the Taliban, due to his political affiliation with a minority party and his religious status as a Shiite Muslim.

Now 27, Tanin is detained at ICE's Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. while he fights a deportation order.

An image of Mustafa Tanin from court documents. The image of his back purportedly shows scars from an attack by the Taliban. The original image is not publicly avaialble. 

But for 17 days between May and July 2017, Tanin was detained at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility (NORCOR) in The Dalles, Oregon.

“I lost my cookies. I said, 'You can't send me these people,'” said NORCOR administrator Bryan Brandenburg.

Brandenburg says the county jail has an agreement with ICE to only take detainees with criminal histories, something NORCOR critics dispute.

NORCOR – one of two jails in Oregon that takes ICE detainees – says its ICE contract makes up for about $1 million in annual funds that it needs to keep operating as a regional jail.

Yet NORCOR may be violating state law. The jail is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that argues the publicly funded facility is violating Oregon's sanctuary status by housing undocumented immigrants.

KGW took an inside look at NORCOR, its relationship with ICE, the legality of holding detainees in Oregon and how much the county jail can really know about the immigrants it keeps within its walls.

EXPLORE

What we know about ICE detainees in Oregon and the jail that holds them

INVESTIGATIONS
Chapter 1

Inside NORCOR, a jail set on reform

Drive an hour and a half east of Portland on Interstate 84 and you'll hit The Dalles, a working-class town of about 15,000 residents smack in the middle of Oregon's dramatic landscape shift from lush forest to rocky desert on the banks of the Columbia River.

A patch of industrial buildings on the west end of town surrounds NORCOR, the regional jail that has served four surrounding counties since it opened in 1999. The jail houses, on average, about 115 inmates a day who are serving light sentences for minor infractions or awaiting transfer for more serious crimes, as well as ICE detainees. NORCOR also has a juvenile facility that holds between five and 30 youth from across eastern Oregon and parts of Washington state.

Related: Kids treated inhumanely at NORCOR in The Dalles, report says

On average, about 2,800 people serve time at NORCOR each year.

Inmates are mostly kept in dorm-style rooms, with two people to a cell and a common area where they can sit at metal tables, watch TV, and pay to send emails or make video calls, in lieu of in-person visitation. The jail provides one free video visit each week if visitors come to the jail.

The inmates have access for one hour a day to a large room with high concrete walls designated as the “outdoor recreation” area. The windowless room has an open ceiling but is within the confines of the jail. Inmates can play basketball, lift weights or run around the rectangular space.

Dorms, too, have some skylights, which fulfill the jail's requirement for outside light as there are no windows.

Inmates can sign up to work in the laundry room, kitchen or maintenance department. In exchange, the jail gives them $5 a week for commissary items such as snacks, games and hygiene products.

NORCOR was built and is funded by Wasco, Hood River, Gilliam and Sherman counties in a partnership that takes some financial strain off the small counties that had been struggling to maintain their own jails. Over 16 years, NORCOR cycled through eight different administrators and developed a recidivism rate of 75 percent, meaning three out of four offenders returned to the jail after being released.

“Basically, this has just been a booking and holding facility with no programs, no sort of resources available to help folks to make changes so they don't come back to NORCOR,” said current administrator Bryan Brandenburg.

NORCOR administrator Bryan Brandenburg

Brandenburg was hired in 2016 – an extremely high-profile recruit, as his previous job was the Director of Institutions at Alaska's Department of Corrections. He oversaw 13 Alaska state prisons as well as a private prison in Colorado that housed 1,200 Alaska inmates.

Brandenburg was appointed to the job in 2011 but dismissed in 2015 after Independent Gov. Bill Walker took office. He was up for other leadership positions, including director of Nebraska's Department of Corrections, before he was ultimately hired at NORCOR. Brandenburg said he took the job partly to be closer to his daughter, a student at Southern Oregon University.

Brandenburg, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology, says he implemented several programs at the jail that are already showing results.

“We have an anger management program, we have a substance abuse program, a parenting program and a reentry program for reentry back into the community as far as resume writing and job skills and that sort of thing. Then we have a criminal attitudes program that helps folks look at their thinking as it relates to criminal behavior,” he explained.

Brandenburg says these programs have helped reduce recidivism to 66 percent so far, and he expects that to keep dropping over time. He also hired two full-time mental health clinicians to help mentally ill inmates.

“When I started here we had, on average, 45 seriously or persistently mentally ill folks here every month,” Brandenburg said. “In the last two months it's been averaging about 25. We've basically cut that population in half.”

Brandenburg credits the jail staff for much of the progress. As he walks through the white-and-blue cinderblock halls, he greets employees by name and shakes their hands.

“They're very enthusiastic about what it is we're doing,” he said.

Although NORCOR has made measurable strides for local inmates, it is criticized for housing undocumented immigrants, some who have never been convicted or charged with a crime.

Chapter 2

Long history of housing ICE detainees

While attention on the federal government's treatment of immigration detainees recently ramped up under the Trump administration, NORCOR has housed ICE detainees since it first opened 18 years ago. The jail currently averages about 25 ICE detainees at a time but has had as many as 50 at once, Brandenburg said.

ICE would not confirm specifics about the detainees at NORCOR.

NORCOR is one of two Oregon jails that houses ICE detainees. Josephine Jail in Grants Pass also takes undocumented immigrants in ICE custody, but at a much lower rate – about 80 per year, according to 2015 data from TRAC, a nonpartisan immigration reporting site run by Syracuse University.

Columbia County Jail in St. Helens used to hold ICE detainees but stopped after a lawsuit in Clackamas County, according to the Columbia County sheriff's office. A current roster shows several USM (U.S. Marshals Service) inmates at the jail, but the sheriff's office says those inmates are charged with crimes and not detained under ICE custody.

The number of detainees in The Dalles shifts often as ICE moves them in and out of NORCOR for various reasons. Buses transporting detainees usually arrive once or twice a week.

“They will bring new folks in and other folks out either for appointments or meetings with their lawyers, or court dates, or actual deportation,” Brandenburg said. “There's a constant fluctuation in the numbers and who's here and who isn't here.”

When they arrive, each wearing a bracelet with an alien registration number assigned by the Department of Homeland Security, detainees are “processed” just like NORCOR inmates. Buses carrying detainees back into the prison, where detainees exit for pre-booking. They're tested for alcohol and then placed in holding cells for 24-72 hours while they are screened for medical issues, suicide risk factors and whether they are a threat to others.

Then they're placed in a separate dorm with other immigrants.

When KGW visited NORCOR, Brandenburg declined to allow ICE detainees to talk to a reporter.

“They're not my inmates,” he said.

The volume of detainees has also fluctuated significantly over the years; dropping in the mid-2000s when ICE opened its 1,575-person facility in Tacoma, then ramping back up recently as the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants across the country.

Financially, NORCOR's agreement with ICE is a win-win. ICE saves money by using 95 city or county jails like NORCOR nationwide to help manage its detainee population, in addition to its own facilities and ones that are operated by outside contractors – such as the Tacoma facility, which is owned by ICE but run by the private prison company GEO Group.

“ICE uses these various models to meet the agency's detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer,” said ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe.

In all, ICE says it has 203 facilities that house 93 percent of its population -- just over 38,000 detainees as of Sept. 2, 2017. According to TRAC, ICE utilizes more than 600 facilities nationwide to help the agency manage all of its detainees.

ICE pays NORCOR $80 a day to house each detainee, which accounts for about $1 million a year of NORCOR's $6.2 million annual operating costs.

“It's an important revenue stream for NORCOR,” Brandenburg said.

The funding fills the gap between the subsidies each county provides and how much it costs to keep the jail running. Between the four counties, NORCOR receives $3.8 million – just over half of the price tag of running the jail for a year. NORCOR also gets funds from federal contracts and grants, property rentals, medical expenses, inmate debt recovery and a contract with Benton County to house some of their inmates.

But while the ICE contract provides a significant cash influx to NORCOR's operations, the contract also raises questions of legality in a state that prohibits local and state authorities from helping to enforce federal immigration law unless a person has committed a crime.

Chapter 3

How much can NORCOR really know about ICE detainees?

Oregon has a sanctuary state law stipulating that no money from the state will be used to find or hold people who haven't done anything illegal besides staying in the United States without documentation.

Brandenburg is aware of this law, and has said repeatedly that NORCOR does not take detainees who have not been charged with a crime.

“You have to have a criminal charge as well as an immigration issue before we'll house you for immigration,” he said.

NORCOR's contract with ICE does not include any language about the criminal histories of the detainees it sends to The Dalles. Brandenburg said he has a verbal agreement with the federal agency that is not detailed in the contract, requiring ICE to only send detainees who are facing criminal charges or have already been convicted of a crime and are awaiting deportation.

NORCOR's ICE Contract