Legal groups claim Prince Edward Co. broke the law with ICE vote

Published 2:26 am Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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Four national legal groups have accused Prince Edward County supervisors of violating Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), by the way they handled discussion and approval of the ICA Farmville detention center contract.

First off, what are we referring to? Farmville is home to a privately owned detention center called ICA or Immigration Centers of America, located at 508 Waterworks Road. ICA Farmville’s reputation has been far from stellar over the last decade. Over the last three years alone, the facility has attracted a number of headlines, even making national news at one point. In 2020, 93% of detainees at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. One of them, 72-year-old Canadian national James Thomas Hill, died after catching the virus.

Soon after, it was shut down until July 2022, when a settlement was reached, allowing the facility to reopen with restrictions. For the next year, the center can hold no more than 180 people at one time. Since the facility’s reopened, multiple family members of those detained have come before the Farmville town council, saying conditions hurt their loved ones’ health. 

Making a change to Prince Edward

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Farmville’s council previously contracted with ICA Farmville. However, the council decided to let the contract expire at the end of this month. That’s where Prince Edward County stepped in, with supervisors negotiating in the months prior and then unanimously voting during their Tuesday, March 12 meeting to enter into a contract with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a subcontract with Abyon LLC, which operates the ICA detention facility. 

The vote was held at the end of the March meeting, done in open session, but it’s the steps leading up to it the groups are complaining about. The National Immigration Project, Detention Watch Network, Legal Aid Justice Center, and the National Immigrant Justice Center argue in a letter dated March 14 that county staff didn’t provide enough information to let people know what type of contract was being discussed and with who. 

That’s part of what they claim violated FOIA, a lack of available information before the vote. They complain county officials didn’t hold any public hearings on the contract, once it had been brought up out of closed session. Instead, supervisors went straight for a vote, not providing advance notice of a vote scheduled for that night. Finally, as of now, they complain the contracts with both Homeland Security and Abyon have not been made public. 

“Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors conducted a vote on contracts to keep the abusive Farmville Detention Center open without public input and behind closed doors,” said Amber Qureshi, Staff Attorney at the National Immigration Project. “We demand that the County not take any steps in response to these unlawful votes and commit to another vote with public discussion and input.”

Looking into the letter

In county meetings from Oct. 2023 to Feb. 2024, the closed session announcement refers to “an unsolicited proposal for an intergovernmental contract”. The legal groups argue in their letter that’s too vague. They also point out that the closed session in the March 12 meeting wasn’t on the original agenda, but was added hours before the meeting. 

As a final argument, the groups claim Prince Edward’s closed session on March 12 was illegal. The only evidence they present is that supervisors came out of closed session that night and voted minutes later. That, the group’s letter claims, is “strong evidence” the closed session wasn’t legal, due to the lack of discussion afterward. 

“It strains credulity to believe that every single item that the Board of Supervisors discussed regarding the intergovernmental service agreement and the subcontract awarded to Abyon LLC must have been done under closed session,” the letter says. 

The groups involved also argued Prince Edward needs to give people the opportunity to voice their concerns. 

“The decision to enter into a contract with a private prison company and ICE carries serious consequences, and should absolutely not be made behind closed doors,” argued Jesse Franzblau, Senior Policy Analyst, with the National Immigrant Justice Center. “ICA-Farmville detention facility is particularly notorious for widespread abuse and impunity. Prince Edward County needs to abide by basic open government standards, and must give the full opportunity for people to voice their serious concerns with the county becoming complicit in  the inhumane immigration detention system.”

At the March 12 meeting, supervisors set a 20-minute time limit on public comment, to which nine people signed up to speak. Out of those nine, eight spoke about the ICA facility. 

What do they want from Prince Edward?

Ok, so the legal groups complained. What do they want to see happen? Well, they have a list of demands. First, they want the county to ignore the supervisors’ unanimous vote to approve the ICA contract. Instead, they want Prince Edward to hold a new set of “open and transparent public hearings”, while providing the public a copy of the contracts with both Homeland Security and Abyon. 

Then, after the public hearings have been held, they want supervisors to vote a second time on if they want to partner with Abyon on the facility. 

If this doesn’t happen, they could file a FOIA violation claim and take the county to court. The Herald has reached out to a number of law schools and FOIA experts to discuss the issue, but had not heard back by presstime.

Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said his office received the letter and it’s been passed over to the county attorney for review. The letter demands an answer by Thursday, March 21.

To read more about how we got to this point, click here.