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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

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

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. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. 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 based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.