Shuttered private jail in Leavenworth could become ICE detention center

Facility struggled with violence, suicides, drug use and understaffing when it held pre-trial detainees facing charges in federal courts

By: - September 6, 2023 11:50 am

CoreCivic's Leavenworth Detention Center, which previously held pre-trial detainees charged with federal crimes could become a detention facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

A private pre-trial detention center in Leavenworth beset with violence when it closed in 2021 could house individuals detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. 

For years, Nashville-based CoreCivic operated the Leavenworth Detention Center, which held individuals charged — but not convicted — with federal crimes from Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and western Missouri. Now, it could reopen to house undocumented immigrants facing removal.

“We haven’t even made a decision because we can’t until we are in an open meeting and we debate and we figure out what we do want to do or not,” said Leavenworth County Commission Chair Vicky Kaaz. 

She emphasized in an interview that the commission had yet to even hear the details of a possible arrangement. 

When CoreCivic’s Leavenworth facility held pre-trial detainees under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, the private jail struggled with staffing crises, rampant drug use and persistent violence. It’s being sued by a former inmate whose lawsuit includes allegations of at least 10 stabbings in 2021 and two suicides.

In 2019, CoreCivic settled with 500 detainees for $1.45 million for illegally recording phone calls with their defense attorneys and providing them to prosecutors.

The facility closed at the end of 2021 when CoreCivic’s contract with the U.S. Marshals Service expired. President Joe Biden, in his first week in office, signed an executive order barring the Department of Justice from renewing contracts with private criminal detention facilities. 

But ICE falls under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

The future of the CoreCivic facility has been the subject of speculation for almost two years, but ICE had previously said it was not pursuing a contract for the Leavenworth facility, KCUR reported in 2021.  

CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said in an email that ICE is in the process of procuring detention services in the area. 

“Out of respect for the integrity of the process, we do not elaborate on any proposals that may have been submitted in response to active procurements,” Gustin said. 

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Since CoreCivic closed in 2021, the company has reached out to the county several times about efforts to reopen the facility, County Administrator Mark Loughry said during a Leavenworth County Commission meeting Wednesday. 

But Loughry said such efforts have never gotten far with the federal government, though that “may have changed” in the last month.

Loughry updated commissioners on the possible arrangement Wednesday after rumors began circulating on social media over the weekend. 

“It’s not an agenda item, and it may never be an agenda item,” Loughry said. “But because of the false narratives that are out there, I just wanted to kind of put out what we know.”

Kaaz said she had gotten angry notes from residents over the possibility since Kansas Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, posted on Facebook this Saturday urging followers to reach out to commissioners, “if you don’t want immigration bringing their self-induced border crisis to our doorstep.”

Loughry said reopening the facility would create 350 jobs, and the county could receive an administrative fee between $600,000 and $800,000 for acting as an intermediary. The value of the facility would also rebound if it opened again, Loughry said, meaning CoreCivic’s property tax bill to the county would rise.

The facility, Loughry said, could house between 500 and 900 detainees — all adults. They would be individuals who had been detained in the Midwest, not people who had just come across the border. 

Commissioner Mike Stieben proposed a motion for the commission to refuse to entertain a possible arrangement. 

“I don’t want to see us go down this road of wasting weeks of staff time having to hear from people when I think this is a totally bad idea,” he said. 

The motion failed 2-3. Commissioners voting against Stieben said they didn’t want to turn down any arrangement before hearing the details. 

The ACLU of Kansas decried the possibility of CoreCivic operating an ICE facility in a news release Wednesday. Sharon Brett, the chapter’s legal director, said the company was “plainly unable to run a facility that meets even the bare minimum of standards afforded by our Constitution.”

“CoreCivic demonstrated a consistent and deliberate indifference to mitigating the dangerous and unconstitutional conditions in the Leavenworth facility, as it has elsewhere in the country,” Brett said.

She said Leavenworth County “should not invite CoreCivic back to once again abuse individuals’ human and civil rights.”

Michael Sharma-Crawford, an immigration attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, said he was concerned attorneys wouldn’t be able to get in touch with their clients easily at a CoreCivic facility. 

Right now, Sharma-Crawford works with clients in custody at the Chase County Jail in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, where he said families and clients have better access to legal counsel. The proposed arrangement would “greatly impede a noncitizens’ ability to seek help when they need it most,” he said. 

“If access to counsel and due process are to mean anything,” he said, “perhaps ICE should reconsider their efforts to thwart both by their current efforts to use (CoreCivic) as a holding facility.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.