The US Marshals Service is supposed to protect state and federal detainees while they await trial. But according to a recent Mother Jones investigation, the Marshals are running a vast, secretive network of substandard, profit-hungry detention centers instead.
The investigation tells the story of a West Texas resident, Isac Garcia-Wislar, a man who became a casualty of the US Marshal’s detention scheme. Two years ago, in March 2017, Isac was a passenger in his cousin’s car when they were pulled over for speeding by a sheriff’s deputy. He’d been living in the US for decades at this point. His wife held a green card, and his children were American citizens, having been born in the US.
The deputy allegedly discovered open containers of alcohol, as well as cocaine. Despite the fact that Isac wasn’t driving, and it wasn’t his car, Isac was arrested. He didn’t have identification, so the deputy called Border Patrol to report him. Border Patrol, in turn, referred him to federal prosecutors, according to Mother Jones. Because Isac had been deported once before, on a regular trip between his Texas residence and his family’s ranch in Mexico, he was charged with illegal reentry. That’s a federal felony.
Isac was placed into the US Marshals Service as a detainee. What happens next is a grisly example of how the service neglects the charges in its custody. The Mother Jones story details Isac’s four months In the Tom Green County Jail, during which he developed multiple illnesses that went completely ignored by the Marshals running the facility.
Isac ultimately died in the jail, and two doctors independently confirmed that his jailers’ decisions to repeatedly ignore his complaints, as well as his family’s concerns, appeared to have all but assured his death. To make matters even more grave, there’s no indication that the Tom Green County Jail ever investigated his death.
Isac’s story is, unfortunately, one of many cases of mistreatment, harassment, and even death inside the Marshals system. Part of the problem is that the Marshals operate largely under the radar. The author of the Mother Jones piece literally had to sue the organization to gain access to annual inspections that documented the deaths of over 150 people in Marshals detention between 2016 and 2019 -- and hundreds more in the five years before.
So why are they able to lay so low, despite catastrophic outcomes for the people in their charge? They’re shadowy. They contract operations of prisons out to other organizations, so the innumerable injustices that occur there are rarely traced back to them.
Rather than operating their own prison systems, Marshals provide oversight to the people and systems who do. Or rather, they’re supposed to -- which they aren’t doing. They -- a federal agency -- effectively ignore problems and allow the major players in the for-profit prison industrial complex to continue taking federal paychecks to the bank, handing down clean inspection reports despite extremely substandard conditions that put prisoners at risk.
That’s why journalists so frequently call out individual prisons and the for-profit prison system as a whole, but so rarely the Marshals themselves. That’s how the organization evades publicly taking responsibility for their actions. It’s that simple.
Here’s a high-profile example: billionaire Jeffrey Epstein was a Marshals detainee. The agency was responsible for his detention, as well as the investigation into him. But when he died by suicide in his federally-run jail cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, the public scrutinized the negligent guards, the prison itself -- but the Marshals were never a major part of the conversation around the operational sloppiness that enabled his death while in custody. In the case of Epstein, even international attention and journalistic examination couldn’t bring the Marshals into the spotlight.
The problem is so egregious that at one facility, the Jack Harwell Detention Center, the Marshals turned a blind eye for years, allowing them to continue operating despite conditions so bad even ICE temporarily pulled its detainees out: dirty meal trays, mildew, and violence. Finally, after public outcry and pushback from local law enforcement, the contractor was pushed out of the jail -- with no help from the Marshals.
So how did we get here? How are the US Marshals -- an arm of the US Justice Department -- able to commit such a vast dereliction of duty, practically unchecked?
For that, we have to go back in time. All the way to the beginning of our country’s history: to our first president, George Washington. He appointed the very first US Marshals to help enforce decisions handed down from federal courts. Over time, that role has expanded into things like pretrial detention and taking law enforcement into its own hands when local justice systems can’t or won’t.
In some cases, that included protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the nation as they fought for equality and progress, like enforcing the desegregation of schools all across the country, from Boston to New Orleans. They protected doctors who carried out abortions from an uptick in violence.
But Mother Jones turned up some, shall we say, choice moments in the history of the agency: they were sent out to hunt fugitive slaves, and the Marshals participated in the massacre of hundreds of Lakota Native Americans at Wounded Knee. When President Ronald Reagan’s so-called “war on drugs” coincided with the 1984 Bail Reform Act, which made it easier for judges to detain potentially dangerous defendants, the Marshals were given unprecedented authority to incarcerate exponentially more people, and for longer.
After the “war on drugs”, the numbers of people in Marshals custody only continued to climb as the country was faced with more and more crises that led to xenophobic and exclusionary policies at the federal level: the terrorist attacks on September 11th led the government to introduce policies to limit the number and type of immigrants allowed into the United States.
So the volume of detainees in Marshals custody has continued to skyrocket in the succeeding decades, with the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance party bringing the number up to its current figure of 62,000 daily detainees. In the 2018 fiscal year, the Marshals held almost a quarter of a million people. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more than all county jails in any state except for California and Texas.
As overcrowding in existing facilities gets worse, the Marshals have an incentive to prop up failing jails, according to Mother Jones, simply because they need the beds. About two-thirds of the detainees are held in jails and private facilities across the country, like Tom Green County Jail -- the facility in which Isac Garcia-Wislar was neglected and died. The other third are contracted private prisons or federally-run detention centers. And remember: these people are all in the pretrial stage of the justice system. They have not been convicted of any crimes.
It’s also worth noting that the Bail Reform Act enables the justice system to put immigrants behind bars at a higher rate than other defendants, with the built-in justification that foreign citizenship is considered a factor contributing to flight-risk: almost 90 percent of Latinx people awaiting trial are kept in custody. It’s a proportion that far outstrips other demographic groups.
The Justice Department attempted to push the Marshals to exercise stronger oversight when the detention boom reached a fever pitch about twenty years ago, but the Marshals refused, arguing that oversight fell outside of their responsibilities -- effectively allowing bad actors to go unpoliced.
That brings us to now. The staggering number of detainees in Marshals custody has left the agency vastly under-resourced and unable (or unwilling) to safely serve and protect the vulnerable people in its custody. But because of the shadowy realm in which it operates, the Marshals Service has been able to pull off a catastrophic abuse of power.
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