In the waning days of his administration last year, then-sheriff Paul VanBlarcum urged county lawmakers to consider a proposal to board detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Ulster County Jail.
But, despite facing a $900,000 shortfall in projected revenues from fees paid by other agencies to house inmates at the facility, both County Executive-elect Pat Ryan and Sheriff Juan Figueroa said this week that the former sheriff’s proposal is a non-starter.
“We will not do that, absolutely not,” said Ryan shortly after announcing his victory in Tuesday’s special election. “We don’t trade our values for things like that.”
Completed after a years-long and millions-over-budget process in 2008, the Ulster County Jail can hold up to 488 inmates. But average daily counts are typically much lower and those numbers are expected to fall further next year when a new law takes effect eliminating cash bail for all misdemeanors and most non-violent felony offenses. Currently, about 60 percent of inmates at the jail are held in pre-trial detention, rather than serving sentences following conviction. Since it opened, the jail has maintained a revenue stream by boarding inmates from other jurisdictions — notably Dutchess and Greene counties — whose county jails are pressed for space. The 2019 county budget calls for the jail to take in $1.14 million in board-in revenue — a major increase over previous years.
But that projection changed abruptly in January, when Greene County Sheriff Gregory Seeley opted to begin boarding inmates at the Albany County Jail, instead of in Ulster. The Greene County inmates were expected to bring in about $900,000 in boarding fees. Figueroa said he did not know what prompted Seeley’s decision. Seeley, meanwhile, did not return calls seeking comment.
Last November, Figueroa, running on the Democratic Party line defeated three-term incumbent VanBlarcum, a registered Democrat who ran on the Republican and Conservative Party lines. On Dec. 26, 2018, shortly before leaving office, VanBlarcum drafted an email to the Ulster County Legislature’s clerk outlining a proposal to significantly boost the jail’s board-in revenue by accepting inmates ordered held in detention by immigration court judges. In the email, VanBlarcum noted that the legislature’s Public Safety Committee had, over the years, prodded him to increase revenue generated by boarding outside inmates.
The opportunity to house immigration detainees arose, VanBlarcum said, after federal authorities advised him that they planned to waive certain provisions that had previously prevented Ulster County from boarding them. The prisoners, VanBlarcum said, would generate about twice the $75-a-day fee paid by county governments for boarding. VanBlarcum added that he had directed Jail Warden Maj. John Becker to set up a meeting with ICE officials and that he planned to advise Figueroa of the opportunity during transition talks. VanBlarcum asked the clerk’s office to present the email to the legislature’s new Public Safety Committee when they reconvened in February 2019.
“We had a plan,” VanBlarcum told Ulster Publishing this week. “We figured we had plenty of space and these people have to get locked up somewhere.”
A spokeswoman for ICE confirmed that the agency was currently revising its National Detention Standards in accordance with executive orders issued by President Donald Trump. The effort includes a push to detain more undocumented immigrants prior to deportation proceedings and enforcing deportation orders against undocumented residents and green card-holders convicted of minor crimes who were previously allowed to remain in the country. ICE spokeswoman Rachel Yong Yow declined to comment on specifics of the new detention standards since they remain in draft form pending their implementation later this year. Yong Yow confirmed that ICE was working with sheriffs referred to them by the National Sheriffs Association and the National Institute of Corrections, seeking feedback on the new detention rules.
Currently, the Orange County Jail is the only county facility in the region housing ICE detainees. As of April 30, there were 158 immigration detainees there. Orange County receives $110 per day per detainee for boarding.
It’s unclear whether the Public Safety Committee was ever presented with VanBlarcum’s plan. Committee Chair Lynn Eckert (D-Kingston) did not return a phone call and email seeking comment, nor did committee member Jonathan Heppner (D-Woodstock). Committee co-chair and former legislative chairman Ken Ronk (R-Wallkill) said that he did not recall VanBlarcum’s proposal coming up at the committee’s February meeting. Ronk said he might support the proposal if it ever came before the committee.
“The federal government has got to detain them somewhere,” said Ronk. “And we have a modern jail that could probably provide better quarters [for detainees] than what they have now.”
Figueroa, who told Ulster Publishing that the jail was “open for business” in boarding inmates from other municipalities, said the ICE detention plan had been mentioned during transition talks. But, like Ryan, Figueroa said that he was not willing to accept detainees locked up amid Trump’s immigration crackdown.
“I believe in the due process of law,” said Figueroa. “And I am not going to be housing any ICE detainees at the sheriff’s office.”