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David Giuliani: Why keep ICE records secret?

November 19, 2018

Since 2016, the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Office has housed ICE detainees in one of its two jails. Along with its U.S. Marshals contract, the county gets millions each year to lock up people at the federal government’s behest.

The ICE contract, in particular, is controversial. Those opposed to the federal agency’s activities say the county should not lend a hand. They accuse the county of balancing its budget on the backs of immigrants who are stopped by ICE for minor infractions and then put on the road to deportation.

The sheriff’s office, however, says the majority of ICE detainees have criminal backgrounds, including rape and sexual assault. But the sheriff does not provide exact numbers.

So, what kind of ICE detainees are inside the Jerome Combs Detention Center? What percentage are hardened criminals? How many are picked up for being illegally in this country?

The public does not know the answer to these questions. The only way to resolve this mystery is to get facts.

Typically, jails must release the names of inmates. Indeed, the sheriff’s office releases a regular jail log.

But when it comes to ICE and U.S. Marshals detainees, Sheriff Mike Downey and his chief deputy, Ken McCabe, say that information would have to come from the federal agencies.

As a practical matter, that is a dead end. Trying to pry information from the federal bureaucracy is no easy task. Unlike open records laws in most states, the federal government’s is weak. It can take months or years to get records.

But we should not have to go to the feds for this information. Local taxpayers should have the right to know who they are housing in the jails they pay for.

When I made this point to Downey, the sheriff replied that taxpayers would be unable to get the names of patients at the state Shapiro Developmental Center in Kankakee, which treats people with mental disabilities.

True, but in that case, disclosure would violate medical privacy.

I can think of no legitimate reason to keep ICE detainee information secret. And when I spoke with the sheriff earlier this week, he could cite no legal justification, but said the newspaper could try to get the information through an open records request to his office. That I did, seeking names of detainees and why they’re locked up.

If such information is in the sheriff’s office’s custody — and Downey told me it was — then his office must either release it or provide a legal justification for its secrecy. That’s what the state’s open records law requires.

I looked through the exemptions in the state Freedom of Information Act, and I found one that the sheriff’s office would probably end up using. It bars release of information when “specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law or rules and regulations implementing federal or state law.”

But to take that exemption, the county must cite the specific law or regulation.

In a letter Thursday, Chief Deputy McCabe did just that. He cited a federal regulation that bars state and private lockups with ICE contracts from releasing detainee information.

“I would also like to advise you that ICE is aware of your request and objects to state disclosure of detainee information ...” McCabe said in the letter.

McCabe provided me with an email address to send a records request to the feds. I did just that. We’ll see how that goes, but ICE’s statement to McCabe is not promising.

If the feds keep this information secret, then we’re basically having secret detentions in Kankakee County. That’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen in the United States of America.

Locally, the debate over who is being held at the local jail continues. The sheriff says one thing, and ICE opponents another. And neither side can present facts to make their case, thanks to government secrecy.

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