The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is currently placing its detainees in Guam and Hawaii facilities because of unresolved deficiencies in medical care at the Saipan adult prison. The CNMI Department of Corrections, for its part, wants to end its agreement with ICE on the use of the prison complex, which has two housing sections reserved for up to 25 ICE detainees yet received only up to two since the start of the year.
CNMI immigration has been placed under federal control pursuant to a 2008 law that also allowed the islands to have a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), a member of the prison task force that was formed while he was still a CNMI immigration director, said yesterday that the CNMI cannot “force” ICE to place its detainees at the Susupe prison knowing that deficiencies in medical care, among other things, still exist because the federal agency will also be violating prison laws and rules if it does.
He said these are “policy decisions” of both agencies involved.
Corrections Commissioner Ray Mafnas sent on Feb. 14 a 120-day written notice of intent to terminate the Inter-governmental Service Agreement or IGSA between DOC and ICE, as provided for in the agreement itself.
The effective date of termination of contract is June 17, 2013.
“After careful assessment and evaluation of the IGSA and the benefits derived, the CNMI DOC made the determination that it was not in its best interest and that of the Commonwealth to hold in reserve and commit extraordinary resources and efforts to continue the IGSA contract with ICE,” Mafnas said when asked for comment on the issue.
He added that this situation is not unique to the CNMI's DOC. He said similar institutions in the nation “chose not to commit extraordinary resources to such an IGSA at great cost and burden.”
ICE, for its part, said it is committed to ensuring the welfare of safety of all those in its custody.
Lori K. Haley, spokeswoman for DHS' ICE, said facilities under contract to house ICE detainees must conform with the agency's rigorous detention standards and undergo regular top-to-bottom inspections.
“A recent assessment of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands prison complex by the ICE Health Services Corps revealed deficiencies in the medical care available to ICE detainees,” Haley told Saipan Tribune.
Haley said ICE has informed officials at the CNMI Corrections about the findings.
Since the issues remain unresolved, ICE is currently using detention facilities in Guam and Hawaii to house its detainees,” she said.
The ICE spokeswoman said ICE values its relationship with the CNMI Department of Corrections and appreciates the support the commissioner and his personnel provide.
“ICE looks forward to continuing to work closely with the CNMI Department of Corrections on current and future endeavors,” she said.
The federal agency, however, did not respond to the question whether it agrees with the notice of intent to end the agreement between DOC and ICE.
Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary and Government Operations, said the two parties have to “come to a mutual understanding” to resolve their issues.
Early last year, ICE gradually transferred 13 of its 20 detainees to Guam, Hawaii, and Los Angeles in California while the CNMI worked on ICE's concerns about the inadequacy of healthcare services for immigration detainees at the Susupe prison.
Mafnas said for DOC purposes, ICE detainees are classified by federal authorities as administrative detainees.
He said ICE detainees demand and are entitled to “relaxed security, generous access to nursing, health, medical, dental and other services and privileges.”
“These extensive privileges require additional logistical responsibilities including medical records maintenance by a qualified medical records technician. Such extraordinary arrangement and privileges present constant challenges and increasing liabilities to the CNMI DOC and the Commonwealth,” Mafnas said.
Initially, DOC reserved nearly 100 bed spaces with the expectation from ICE to house up to 100 detainees. The expected number was subsequently reduced to 50, and then 25.
Since the signing of the IGSA, there was only one day in which the number of ICE detainees reached 22, Mafnas said.
“During the last two months, the CNMI DOC received only two ICE detainees, which is far from the intent of the IGSA between CNMI DOC and ICE. As of today, there is only one ICE detainee housed in one of the two housing units kept in reserve for ICE. These sections are air-conditioned, lighted and well maintained,” Mafnas said.
Sablan said in the end, whether the IGSA is terminated or not, the CNMI has to take a close look at whether its prison complex complies with national prison standards.
Last year, when the same issues surfaced, sources said some of ICE's requirements, including having an in-house nurse at the Susupe prison or an on-call nurse, are difficult to meet at a time when Corrections and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. are financially struggling.
Former attorney general Edward Buckingham at the time said that once ICE's concerns are addressed by the CNMI, the number of ICE detainees at the Susupe facility could go back to either the previous level or more, including up to 50.
Housing 50 federal inmates at the Susupe prison could translate to $1.6 million revenue for the CNMI based on an $89 rate per inmate per day.