The Chase County Courthouse is a Kansas icon. The jail in its shadow is a disgrace.

July 18, 2021 3:33 am

Since 2008, the Chase County Detention Center has had a contract with the Department of Homeland Security to house, for profit, ICE detainees suspected of being in the country illegally. Recently, the jail roster for the facility showed 76 individuals in the facility, most of them foreign nationals from Mexico and Central America. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

If you’ve ever strolled downtown in Cottonwood Falls, you’ll remember the charming courthouse perched on the square at the south end of the brick street.

Charming is not a word I use often, but there’s no doubt about it: The Chase County Courthouse is downright charming. With its local limestone walls, red mansard roof and central clock tower, it resembles a dollhouse or perhaps a Valentine’s Day cake. The building and the jail beneath were built in 1873 for a total cost of $42,599 (and 88 cents), according to the courthouse’s National Register of Historic Places nomination.

An icon to a century that is past and was presumably but not necessarily better, the courthouse is one of the most photographed — and most recognizable — buildings in Kansas. You’ll find images of the courthouse on all sorts of tchotchkes in the tourist shops scattered along either side of the street, from calendars to Christmas ornaments to cookies.

It is the oldest working courthouse in Kansas, the kind of place where commissioners meet and taxes are collected, court trials are held, and couples sometimes marry and pose for pictures on stairs with native walnut bannisters. Even the jail was in use, at least until 1976, when the fire marshal condemned it as a public safety hazard because the only exit was a circular stairwell.

The old jail at the Chase County Courthouse at Cottonwood Falls was condemned in 1976 as a fire safety hazard because there was only one exit, a circular stairwell. A new jail was built in 1992, with the aim of generating revenue from housing prisoners from nearby counties. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Closing the jail began a chain of events that would, eventually, lead to Chase County running a for-profit detention center that on any given day holds dozens of detainees waiting for deportation hearings.

You can’t see the detention center from the courthouse, because it’s a few blocks over on Walnut Street (Kansas Highway 177). It’s on the east side of the road, in a strip of county buildings that include the road crew barn and health department. There’s a limestone sign out in front that says “Chase County Law Enforcement Center,” but if you didn’t already know it was a federally contracted immigration detention facility, there would be no way to tell, except perhaps for the video cameras and the razor wire atop the fences.

Stop in the public parking area in front of the facility to take some photos and it’s likely a red-shirted jailer will come out to inquire what you’re up to. The jailer I drew last weekend was a polite young man who confirmed that it was indeed the county detention center. He said there were 75-80 inmates currently on the roster, which was about average. He said the detention center didn’t get very many people stopping for photos.

The detention center’s online roster listed 76 detainees, mostly Mexican nationals accused of being in the country illegally. There were also other foreign nationals, including from Central America and Africa. There were a handful of inmates from Chase and nearby counties being held on criminal charges. The website says the detention center is closed to in-person visitation, because of COVID-19, but there is telephone and video communication available through a private vendor.

After the old jail was condemned in 1976, Chase County had to pay nearby counties for housing its few prisoners per month. But in July 1992, the county opened a new, 32-bed jail, built with $1 million in bond money in the hopes of making a profit from other agencies in need of cells. The project was marked by controversy from the start.

The county commission adopted home rule measures that exempted it from some state laws governing the way county jails were administered, according to a Nov. 26, 1992, clipping from the Wichita Eagle. When the sheriff at the time, Larry Sigler, lost his bid for re-election, the commission promptly hired him as the new jail administrator, for 7% of the jail’s gross revenue. The jail had a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house prisoners for $50 a day. The county moved 18 county employees out of the control of the sheriff and placed them with the new jail administrator.

A group called Chase County Citizens for Responsible Government formed and, at a heated commission meeting in November 1992, more than 150 persons showed up to voice their concern about the jail and its operation. The commission did not allow questions or comments. One of the commissioners, Bill Yeager, told the Eagle that the problem was caused by the local paper, the Chase County Leader-News, printing “exaggerated stories to try to stir up a riot.”

The jail failed to live up to financial expectations, and in 1993 the county missed an $80,000 bond payment. The county asked the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals for a loan, but was denied. In the end, according to an Associated Press clipping from October 1993, the county was forced to hike taxes to pay for the jail and other expenses.

The goal of a for-profit jail came closer to reality in 2008, when the county signed a contract with the Department of Homeland Security to hold those detained on suspicion of being in the country illegally. As undocumented immigration became a national focus, the need for cells — in Chase County and elsewhere — skyrocketed. Millions of dollars have poured into the facility from the federal government over the years, but most of that was taken by operating expenses and paying off each year’s share of the facility’s bonded indebtedness.

In 2017, when an interim jail administrator was hired, he praised the for-profit model.

“It does help our county,” the administrator, Dow Wilson, said to the Emporia Gazette. “Our jail is self-sustaining, so no tax dollars are used in funding our jail. So it relieves the burden on the taxpayer.”

Last year, the Chase County Detention Center at Cottonwood Falls was home to a COVID-19 outbreak that struck both prisoners and staff. According to records from Homeland Security, which pays the facility to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally, 152 inmates were infected. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Later in 2017, a permanent jail administrator was hired: Sigler, the sheriff who lost re-election 25 years before. He remains the administrator today. The jail made headlines last year when a COVID-19 outbreak struck the facility, sickening staff and inmates alike. All told, there were 152 infections last year among detainees, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sigler told me recently the jail had about a million dollars in reserve before COVID hit, and that it was now back on track to rebuild that amount. He believes most people in the county see the jail as a benefit, he said. It employs a staff of 31. The county website is currently advertising for a jailer, at a starting salary of $15 an hour.

In 2019, the jail’s bond was finally paid off. Records from the Chase County Clerk’s Office show the jail generating excess revenue now of about $120,000 per year, with a total cash balance of $224,400 as of year-end 2020.

The Chase County Detention Center, when fully staffed, can hold up to 148 inmates. The center is among more than 600 facilities, large and small, that provide cells for tens of thousands of immigration detainees across the country. There were 27,217 of those individuals in detention nationwide as of July 8, according to the TRAC database at Syracuse University, and 80% of them have no criminal history.

The number of detainees is dramatically up, according to TRAC, from less than 14,000 in March 2021.

The backlog of immigration cases means that detainees often spend months, or even years, waiting for their cases to be heard. It is illegal under the Fifth Amendment to hold immigrants without due process, but the Supreme Court hasn’t defined how long a detainee can be held before getting into constitutional issues. Also, immigration courts are often remote from the facility where a detainee is held. There are no immigration courts in Kansas, for example; the nearest to Cottonwood Falls is in Kansas City, Missouri, 130 miles away. Sigler said the jail began video teleconferencing for court appearances before COVID.

The average stay of an ICE detainee at Chase County is 27 days, Sigler said. For each day, the county receives $62 under its current contract. That amounts to $1,674 per detainee stay.

While the Chase County Detention Center has finally achieved viability as a for-profit facility, the question must be asked: At what moral cost?

A sparrow atop a fence at the Chase County Detention Center at Cottonwood Falls. Since 2008, the facility has had a contract with the Department of Homeland Security to house, for profit, ICE detainees suspected of being in the country illegally. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Back in 1992, the goal was to build a jail that would pay for itself by taking in a few prisoners from other counties and the federal Marshals Service. Now, in 2021, the detention center is part of a vast network of federally contracted for-profit jails that, for $60 or so dollars a day, will house those suspected of having committed no crime other than wanting a better life in America. In January, the Biden administration ordered the Department of Justice to stop using for-profit prisons, but that order does not extend to ICE detention facilities.

The story of how a predominantly white, rural county in Kansas came to own a for-profit jail that depends financially on filling its cells with dozens of ICE detainees is a complicated one that poses a moral dilemma. Fewer than 5% of Chase County’s 2,637 residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Less than 2% of residents are foreign-born.

What business does Chase, or any county, have in profiting from the misery of individuals trapped in the spiral staircase of a backlogged immigration system? The need of a jail with a few cells to hold local prisoners, and perhaps a few from neighboring counties, has morphed into a self-perpetuating institution that now puts a few dollars in the county coffers at the expense of its soul.

Buildings are more than buildings. From fire stations to schoolhouses to jails, they are all extensions of political will, and especially so for a county with fewer than 3,000 residents. They signal what is important, and to what degree. Jails are a necessary function of county government. Making them profit centers is not.

It all makes the Chase County Courthouse seem a little less charming.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.