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Butler County, Kansas, has a population of 65,000 and a largely empty jail. But soon, if the Sheriff’s Office has its way, those beds will be filled by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“Right now we’re just trying to bring in more revenue,” Capt. Erik Ramsey said at a public meeting earlier this month. “We’re aggressively soliciting inmates from ICE.”

In the federal immigration crackdown, small and rural county jails have become an eager and dependable ally. Renting out jail beds has become such a good source of revenue that many counties are expanding their facilities with contracts in mind. But according to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice, such contracts also are one of the main driving forces behind mass incarceration.

According to the study, jail populations in small and rural counties are exploding, driven largely by an increase in pretrial defendants and in jails renting out beds to outside agencies, like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Those watching President Donald Trump’s crime-fighting efforts may conclude this is a recent trend, but small county jail populations have been growing for decades.

While cities like New York and Los Angeles have decreased or leveled off their jail populations in recent years, small and rural counties in the South and the West have grown them exponentially, according to the study’s authors.

Between 1970 and 2013, researchers found the number of people being held in small and rural county jails prior to trials increased 436 percent. Small and rural county jails have also outpaced other types of jails in admitting people from outside agencies. While urban areas increased this practice 134 percent, and suburban counties 409 percent, small and rural counties increased the number of jail bed rentals by nearly 888 percent, according to the study’s authors. Customers include the Federal Marshals, Bureau of Prisons and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Financial incentives are a driving force and a good reason this trend is likely to continue, according to the study’s authors. Absent bail reform, unlike larger counties, small and rural counties have fewer resources for alternatives to jailing defendants. With immigration detention centers already strained, federal authorities are likely to continue turning to county jails.

Check out the Vera Institute’s full report for more information.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.


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Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.