Wall Street Firm Makes Money From South Florida ICE Detention Center Accused of Abuse

Glades County Sheriff David Hardin
Glades County Sheriff David Hardin Glades County Sheriff's Office
The Glades County Detention Center, which sits less than two hours northwest of Miami, is a county jail that also holds detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility is also allegedly a hot spot of abuse and malfeasance. Back in 2015, the Glades County Sheriff's Office was tied to a money-laundering scandal that also involved the Bal Harbour Police Department. In the years since, guards at the jail have been accused of brutally pepper-spraying, beating, neglecting, and verbally harassing detainees.

As it turns out, a Wall Street mutual fund is taking a cut from every single ICE detainee sent to the jail.

According to a report yesterday from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, Glades County built the jail in 2007 by selling bonds to outside investors. One of those investors was a New York City firm called OppenheimerFunds, which is a subsidiary of MassMututal, the multibillion-dollar financial behemoth ranked number 76 on the Fortune 500. Per the Vera Institute, OppenheimerFunds at one point held a majority interest in those Glades County revenue bonds, which means the firm exercises massive influence over how Glades County operates its combination jail and immigration detention center. The fund has since sold down its shares to about 25 percent of the entire bond program.

"This example illustrates the connection between the growing criminalization of immigration and rural jail expansion in the United States," Vera's researchers note.

Vera reports that one of every five dollars that goes into the jail is paid back to the investors — which means the jail is incentivized to bring in more and more detainees. Glades County officials aren't shy about admitting this — county Sheriff David Hardin told the hometown Glades County Democrat in January 2017 that both jail officials and outside investors were excited that Donald Trump had taken office because more detainees meant more money for the facility.

"We actually have seen an increase [in ICE detainees] already and we hope that trend continues," Hardin said then. "We expect the criminal immigration detainees to rise in the new year." He added later that the "bondholders and investors are encouraged."

The latest Vera report outlines yet another outside company or contractor making bank from ICE detainees in Florida. Earlier this week, New Times reported that Boca Raton's massive private-prison corporation, the GEO Group, is ICE's top moneymaking contractor, holding more than $400 million in contract obligations. New Times also reported on a Virginia firm called Zephyr Aviation, which makes tens of thousands of dollars flying deportees from Miami to Cuba on ICE's behalf. Activists say private industries are immoral for making money off imprisoning people and that the profit motive makes it harder to reform the criminal justice and immigration systems.

"This is not a unique story," Vera researchers wrote. "By following the money, one can better understand some of the financial interests behind the continued growth of public jails and prisons."

According to the hometown Okeechobee News, the Glades County jail was almost forced to close in 2015 after Obama's administration lowered the number of immigrants it was apprehending. Then-Sheriff Stuart Whiddon (who later resigned after he was caught up in the money-laundering scandal) said his jail needed a total of 400 ICE inmates to stay afloat — and that he was currently 200 ICE detainees shy of hitting that goal. Thanks to Trump, as of March 9, 2017, that number had jumped to 396 ICE inmates.

"I’m happy with the progress,” Hardin told the newspaper.

So were the Wall Street investors: Former County Commissioner John Ahern told the Vera Institute that the jail's bondholders ultimately decided not to close the jail in 2016.

Amazingly, the bonds that OppenheimerFunds and other groups paid into the jail were tax exempt for a decade— the Internal Revenue Service in 2017 challenged that tax-exempt status and found that the Glades County jail was basically functioning as a private business. Vera reported that the IRS considers a private jail to house 10 percent federal inmates or more — since federal ICE inmates made up 85 percent of the jail population (and since the county set up a nonprofit corporation to sell the bonds), the jail could no longer be considered a tax-free investment opportunity. From 2007 to 2017, investors dodged taxes on $23.5 million in investments.

By 2018, the Glades County Detention Center was being accused of awful abuse and neglect. The facility now houses a group of Somali detainees who arrived there by a circuitous route: In December 2017, ICE flew 92 Somali immigrants from Louisiana to Dakar, Senegal, before turning around and landing back in Miami on a botched deportation trip to Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The detainees, many of whom did not have criminal charges before being deported, say they were shackled in the plane for 48 straight hours, forced to relieve themselves in their seats, verbally abused, and beaten. (ICE denies abusing the detainees but has confirmed the men were shackled in the plane.)

After arriving in Miami, 52 of the men were sent to Glades County, where they have alleged further abuse in court filings and letters to lawmakers. Men say they were pepper-sprayed and forced to live with stinging skin and spray-soaked clothes without showers for days, verbally abused and called racial epithets including the N-word, and denied medical care for serious injuries, including broken bones.

Many of the men were Muslim: During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan from mid-May to mid-June, the immigrants say Glades County guards intentionally prevented them from observing the holiday. Inmates say they were denied halal food, placed in solitary confinement for wearing Muslim kufi caps, and denied access to the Koran, even as Christian detainees were given Bibles. While ICE promised to look into the abuse allegations, the jail made no changes before the Muslim holiday ended in mid-June.

In February, lawyers for the detainees told Florida politicians the abuses were tantamount to human-rights violations.

"Quite frankly, if these circumstances existed in another country, the Glades County Detention Center would be on a 'watch-list' for humanitarian rights organizations, and yet, this is occurring in your district," the lawyers warned.

In the meantime, an investment firm 1,200 miles away continued making money off the jail.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.