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"We are a people and we deserve respect." Proposed Expansion of the Clay County Justice Center Met with Backlash

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CLAY COUNTY, Ind. (WTHI)- For several months, there have been talks between county officials about expanding the Clay County Justice Center.

Paul Hardin is the Sherriff of Clay County. He said the Justice Center has 170 beds. Only nine of those beds are available now. He said now is the time to expand.

"We're running capacity right now," he said. "So, whenever you do that, you need to look at expanding."

The center not only holds local inmates but also holds ICE detainees.  When the center has the space, it will have up to 65 detainees.

Wesley Brockway is a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Indianapolis. He has worked with many clients who were detained in Clay County. He said many of his clients had been residents in the area, but then had a run-in with ICE. He said the time spent in the center was extremely hard for his clients.

"Immigrant or criminal," Brockway said. "They have this mentality that they are treated the same way as anyone else who is maintained in that facility."

Brockway said his clients were denied basic hygiene products, like hand sanitizer to protect against COVID-19. He also said social distancing in the facility was a problem.

Sherriff Harden said items had been distributed to help stop the spread of the virus in the center.

"They've always had access to that," he said. "As they are in, they can request more if they need it. And we're happy to provide that for them."

Other immigrant advocacy groups express other concerns.

Romelia Solano is a research fellow with Mariposa Legal.

Her organization has sponsored many protests and demonstrations against the expansion.

While officials had said there wouldn't be a tax increase, Solano said this often is not the case with jail expansions.

Also concerned is Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center. He said the lack of public discussion is concerning.

"If they are really looking to expand this jail, so they can put more people in immigration detention," he said. "It's really a large issue that people should be concerned about."

Solano said she is calling for more transparency from county officials.

"Our communities are not a dollar bill," she said. "We are a people and we deserve respect."