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Prisonville, Florida: Low Taxes and Big Yards, All for the Price of a Box Full of Immigrants

Prisonville, Florida: Low Taxes and Big Yards, All for the Price of a Box Full of Immigrants

There's a town next to the Everglades, 30 minutes up the expressway from Miami. It's a strange, meandering place occupying ten square miles of homes, horse meadows, and pine trees. Except for part of a big-box mall that falls within its borders, there are no shops. There's no road department or police department, no department store.

But if everything goes according to plan, the 7,400-resident town will soon be home to 1,400 immigrants in a new federal detention center run by a private corporation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has tentatively approved the plan, but the road of negotiations that led here is as long as one of the town's quiet, unlit streets. It began a dozen years ago, when the town was formed and a prison looked like a brilliant source of tax revenue.

Or maybe it began before that, when developer-king Ron Bergeron sold a spot of forsaken land to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Or even before that, when man pushed westward into the swamp, past sprawling homesteads and retention ponds, to a place where he could hide such things as prisons.

Immigration policy can be an abstract issue, but the mechanics need to take place somewhere. Four hundred thousand people a year are rounded up and shipped out of the country on buses or unmarked white jets, repatriated to an even more broken place. On the way, there's paperwork to be done and an average wait time of 28 days, during which the immigrants remain for "processing" in U.S. government custody. But where to put them?

You need three things: a plot of land, a company willing to build a prison, and a local government willing to bend over backward to persuade the feds to hold their captives there.

Add in some residents enticed by the promise that their corporate neighbor, left to do its unpleasant business, could help keep their taxes low forever.

Bienvenidos a Southwest Ranches.

Here is a usual Thursday-night Town Council meeting last year: A couple of dozen people fill a town hall made from doublewide trailers on rented land. Five council members greet residents and take their seats. The Town Council includes Freddy Fisikelli, an 80-year-old cattle farmer who was here from the beginning. He has seen the town through budget crises, corruption, and infighting. Now he's keeping quiet on contentious issues.

There's the group of homeowners' association officials clustered around the back table, talking among themselves about gossip or a flooded lot, same as it ever was.

That's Lee Rosselli by the door: a standup guy, a sheriff's deputy who's about to retire. He's been here forever, and everybody has a story about him. He's been known to help round up cows or tow a tractor in a pinch.

But one night last October, the scene was different. A new element was in play, one that could forever change the way business is done here. Deputy Rosselli was more agitated than usual. Instead of chatting, he stood outside the doors. He was refusing to let anybody in — fire code, he said. Too many people.

Out in the parking lot, TV news vans rumbled, their cameras providing the brightest lights around. Cars continued to overflow the parking lot, spilling onto the grass. People got out, carrying signs written in Sharpie on neon boards. They were speaking intensely, some in Spanish, as they formed a procession down the driveway.

The man with a megaphone, standing on the grass with a determined look on his face, was Bill Di Scipio. He wasn't a member of the immigrant-rights coalition that helped him organize the protest, and he certainly wasn't one of the longtime Ranches homeowners. He'd started out as a curious citizen, relatively new to the place, looking for answers about the big detention center supposedly moving in next door.

He was met with silence from the Town Council. A few weeks before the protest, he had dared to ask why.

Fisikelli, the old farmer, turned to the town attorney, Keith Poliakoff.

"Keith, explain to him why we're doing the 'cone of silence,' " Fisikelli said.

"We've been asked by Homeland Security and CCA," Poliakoff answered.

That was all Di Scipio needed to hear: A federal agency and a private corporation were putting the gag on his elected officials. This was the perceived injustice that spurred Di Scipio to start a long public-records fight with the town and organize several protests. He would push its usually friendly leaders further into nervous silence. Poliakoff would become his enemy.

This new guy in town, with his accusations and curiosity, disrupted a cardinal rule of Southwest Ranches: Live and let live. He stirred up a system that had been accustomed to operating undisturbed. And amid his finger-pointing and name-calling, some of his neighbors realized — belatedly — that along with their low-tax land, they had purchased a share in the prison business.


 

Bill Di Scipio drives his Prius 20 miles every day to a warehouse in Opa-locka, where he runs a manufacturing company. He moved to the Ranches from Northern California. He had built a successful business and decided he liked the "quirky little town" with decent schools and low taxes in a rural setting. In 2006, he paid just under $1 million for a 3,000-square-foot home.

At the time, Di Scipio had no idea that Corrections Corporation of America was looking to build a prison on land it owned in Southwest Ranches. The company had agreed to pay the town a fee for each theoretical prisoner it would one day house, if only it could get a contract with a government agency.

In June 2011, after Di Scipio's home had lost two-thirds of its value in the slumped housing market, the town and CCA finally found a potential source for all those lucrative inmates: U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced that it had tentatively selected the site for a new detention center.

In July, Di Scipio got a prerecorded "robocall" from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which was unhappy with that idea. The Obama administration's ramped-up focus on deportations, the fact that apprehended immigrants are increasingly placed in the hands of a few large corporations, and the fueling of such deportations by checking arrest information against immigration databases have created a perfect storm of unrest for immigration advocates nationwide. Southwest Ranches' new detention center was sure to provide some collateral damage in the form of broken families and crushed dreams.

Di Scipio stays away from all that. But when he got the robocall, he had questions of his own — including why he, a homeowner, hadn't known that this project was in the works. He decided to go to the Town Council and find out why. This led to the exchange with attorney Poliakoff and Di Scipio's realization that his questions were unwelcome at this stage in the negotiations. It looked to him like the Town Council was ramming through a major project under a veil of secrecy, duping citizens whose property values would soon plummet. Reaching for the moral high ground of a truth-seeking journalist, he taught himself about public-records requests at a time in midlife when another man might have shut up and bought a Porsche.

One of his first requests was for supporting material backing up Poliakoff's claim that the feds and CCA had "asked" the town not to discuss the facility. For a while, he didn't hear anything. So he grew restless and asked for more. Emails, billing records, documents. While the immigrant coalition worked to spread its own message, he took his fight straight to the desk of the town clerk.

In his free time, Di Scipio sorts through the reams of requests he's submitted, which he keeps in an overflowing binder. When the requests were met with silence a few times, he started submitting even more of them, with intentionally awful spelling and grammar, under the name "Frank Nurt." Nobody would want to answer these.

Di Scipio grins. "They have to."

He knows that public-records law is on his side, even if he pisses off town officials in the process.

"This is fun as hell," he admits. Mention of his name now elicits an audible groan from the Southwest Ranches clerk.

Di Scipio is unfazed. "I could get older and sit here and whine or get out and be the agent of change."

A few months ago, he finally got an answer to his challenge of the "cone of silence." Poliakoff forwarded him a copy of an email the town attorney had sent to council members and staff in June, as Southwest Ranches was still competing with other cities to win ICE's selection.

"As you know we are in the final months to see if we can land the new Federal Immigration Facility," Poliakoff wrote in the email. "Florida City is flipping over all stones to try to take the lead, but their strategy with the press is actually backfiring since residents are now [coming] out in opposition... which will inevitably cause Homeland Security to shy away from their site since they do not want controversy right now."

Poliakoff wrote that officials should expect calls about the matter, "since the sharks are beginning to circle... If [we get] a ton of calls we will issue a carefully crafted press release, but until then, the less we say the better off we will be."

Poliakoff later claimed his observation that "the sharks are beginning to circle" referred to other municipalities and corporations that had been competing for the contract until the last minute, and not — as Di Scipio believes — to angry townspeople. "Look at the date of that email [June 7]," Poliakoff says today. "There was no Bill Di Scipio. At that time, none of [the protesters] were around. None of them existed."

 

For Di Scipio, the email was proof that the town was moving forward at full steam while Poliakoff did everything legal to keep residents in the dark.


Marygay Chaples, a long-haired great-grandmother with a sharp tongue and a big gun, lives on a farm on a corner of Dykes Road in Southwest Ranches. She came out here 55 years ago, she says, with the Dykes family and two others. The area's early pioneers, they traveled along the levee at Griffin Road to reach a place full of nothing but swamp and pastures.

"There was nothing to the west or the south," Chaples recalls, sitting on her side porch as horses graze in the background. "Nothing to the east, nothing to the north. This was a one-lane road made of debris we pulled out of the ditch. It looked like the Everglades. There were fires — I've got photographs of my fence posts burning."

Chaples has appreciated the work of fences ever since. She mediates town disputes and helps people deal with legal issues, having become a sort of liaison to local government. She has a live-and-let-live attitude about her neighbors, including the wealthy celebrities: athletes such as Udonis Haslem and Jason Taylor, and other people who don't want to be noticed — or taxed.

"We don't care," Chaples says. "We don't bother them. But we will fight for them if we need to."

She's also a firm supporter of the detention center and takes offense when relative newcomers get personal.

"It really angers us for people to attack the town and our elected officials and make wild accusations, all because they don't want a prison," she says.

Her strong belief in property rights — hers is the only place in town still zoned for a slaughterhouse — also informs her support of CCA's plans. In fact, the company has owned its land, with prison-friendly zoning, since before the town existed.

"The new jail planned for southwest Broward County will go in a barren area where the county puts things that nobody wants," wrote David Fleshler and John Maines of the Sun-Sentinel. That statement holds true today — the site is between a county dump and a women's prison — but it was written back in 1998.

CCA had just purchased the 24-acre property. The company had originally scoped out the area in 1991 after a request from the then-sheriff to build a "mega-jail" for 4,000 inmates. Those plans fell through, but CCA stuck around and bought the land. It could shop around for inmates later — essentially making a long-term bet that South Florida would turn more criminal.

Before Southwest Ranches incorporated in 2000, the lawyers for local homeowners' associations lobbied the Florida Legislature to let the town include the CCA plot — which lay completely outside its proposed borders, surrounded by unincorporated land and the city of Pembroke Pines. Town founders theorized that if they scooped up this outlying parcel, it would be a flowing well of money: Once CCA built a prison, it would pay taxes to fill town coffers. CCA now estimates that it will pay more than $1.5 million a year in local and state taxes.

In 2005, Town Administrator John Canada oversaw the signing of a contract between the town and CCA. The prison company would pay the town a one-time fee of $600,000. Additionally, CCA promised the town a 3 to 4 percent cut of any daily fee it received for housing prisoners. If nothing else, the contract could be shown to prospective government agencies to prove that CCA had a good relationship with the town and was ready to build.

"It was one of the better negotiations [Canada] did," says Don Maines, a Town Council member at the time and a supporter of the detention center plan. "That site is zoned for the worst chemical waste dump you could put out there." He calls the less-toxic current proposal "a win-win situation."

Town officials estimated that the CCA deal would bring in a million dollars a year, not counting taxes. In 2006, the year after the contract was signed, that was equal to more than one-third of the town's property-tax revenue.

Chaples points out that CCA could go ahead and build a regular prison there — with criminal inmates — rather than pursue the ICE contract. "To me, it's a better deal to have an immigration facility than to have a prison," she says. Detainees at the facility would not necessarily have criminal records.


One of Di Scipio's requests netted him a trove of inside information: six months' worth of emails sent and received by former (now deceased) Town Administrator Charlie Lynn.

 

One of the emails was sent by Poliakoff to CCA's lawyer and copied to Lynn. Regarding a proposed increase in the facility's capacity, Poliakoff wrote: "My position is, amend the agreement and show me the money and then we can talk."

Di Scipio posted this email and others on his anti-CCA Facebook page, with show me the money highlighted. He began to wonder about "the money" that was involved for Poliakoff and other council members.

Poliakoff explains that show me the money was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the additional federal money that CCA would be required to allocate to the town if the detention-center capacity were expanded. But Di Scipio went on to scrutinize Poliakoff's billing records.

The town officially contracts with Poliakoff's law firm, Becker and Poliakoff, of which he is the principal lawyer of several who attend to town business. In 2010, the town paid the firm more than $450,000 in legal fees. In addition, the firm gets $35,000 a year from the town for state legislative lobbying, regardless of how much lobbying it does. These figures have been in place since early in the town's history, when Poliakoff's father, Gary, was town attorney.

A portion of Poliakoff's billing last year was for negotiations concerning the CCA deal. In March — a particularly critical month — the firm charged $48,912 in legal fees, a high for the year. At least $3,836 was billed by Poliakoff for CCA matters.

Poliakoff says that he does not personally get paid a lot and that surrounding municipalities pay more, sometimes nearly double that yearly amount, for legal services. But surrounding municipalities also have populations much larger than the Ranches' 7,400.

The lawyer also says that the town's contract with CCA stipulates that the company eventually repay all legal fees incurred by the town on the company's behalf. "They're aware that they need to make the town whole," he assures.

Through the emails, Di Scipio also learned how Poliakoff and CCA carefully managed the town's courtship of ICE officials. In early March, an email thread revealed, Poliakoff traveled to Washington, D.C., along with Lynn and Mayor Jeff Nelson. The invitation from ICE was for town officials to make a presentation on their readiness for a detention facility, but CCA was running the show — right down to the accommodations.

After he booked rooms at the J.W. Marriott in downtown D.C., Poliakoff sent an email to Lynn and Nelson. "The rate for the basic room is $439 a night, but CCA says we need to stay there. Charlie, you can sleep in my tub if you want," Poliakoff wrote.

Two days before the Washington presentation, CCA Vice President Lucibeth Mayberry wrote instructions for the town officials to follow during the presentation. "We would like the mayor to help us on the site [map] slide... in explaining why the community views the prison as a good fit for that location," Mayberry wrote. "We need to concentrate on hammering home the positive location of this site."

When Southwest Ranches and CCA talk about community support, they're often talking about the leaders of area homeowners' associations and longtime residents like Chaples, who have been invited to several meetings with CCA.

CCA operates 14 ICE detention facilities of varying security levels. In a white paper presented to ICE about the Southwest Ranches site, CCA proposes that ICE pay it a daily fee of $66 to $69 per detainee. If the town ends up winning the ICE contract, it can expect to take 4 percent of that — or just under $3 per detainee per day — and pass the rest on to CCA and its shareholders.

In April, Poliakoff drafted a letter of support for the prison and sent it to Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose districts include the prison site. They signed a shortened version of the letter, anticipating construction and staffing jobs for their constituents. Di Scipio publicized the fact that Wasserman Schultz received a $1,000 campaign donation from CCA just weeks after signing the letter.

Poliakoff, for his part, has repeatedly played down the importance of the vocal protesters, citing an estimate of their number at around 100 people. "You're looking at 170,000 total residents in Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Pines," he says. "Is [100] a significant number?"


Around the time of the D.C. trip last spring, the town's basic services of firefighting and emergency medical rescue were in turmoil, partly because of the detention center plans. The town backed out of its longstanding agreement to pay the Broward Sheriff's Office to provide these services, eventually choosing to get them from neighboring Pembroke Pines.

Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue spokesman Mike Jachles says that Southwest Ranches moved to cancel the contract because the town believed it could get a better price elsewhere. But there was another factor in the town's decision to cancel. Poliakoff had been trying since the end of 2010 to get BSO officials to offer their easy approval of expanded service to the proposed detention center, and he wasn't getting the answer he wanted.

 

BSO Fire Marshal Charles Raiken offered a gruff response to a proposal to expand the facility's capacity from 1,500 detainees to 2,200 (CCA later backed away from this number). "The town has not provided this office any notice or opportunity to officially review this development," wrote Raiken on January 3.

Raiken concluded that "the proposed expansion... exceeds the capabilities of the existing and projected contractual fire rescue resources available within the jurisdiction of the Town of Southwest Ranches."

Around this time, the contract negotiations with BSO started to break down. Finally, in June 2011, the town signed with Pembroke Pines for fire service. The rate was cheaper, and Pines officials agreed to service the future prison site. Conveniently, the city has a fire station less than half a mile away.

As part of the contract, Pines also agreed to provide water and sewer services to the site, which city officials predicted would bring in nearly a million dollars a year. The deal was approved unanimously by the Pembroke Pines City Commission.

Winning over the residents of Pembroke Pines would be a totally different matter.


Mike Machak, public affairs manager for CCA, stood at the door of the public library in Pembroke Pines on November 5, looking at the line of opponents gathered on the cool Saturday morning. A few held signs, many wore stickers, but the crowd was quietly waiting for admission to the building. "I expected... more," Machak said.

The meeting was organized by Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, who had recently criticized the Southwest Ranches Town Council for providing "a paucity of information" about the detention center plans. The audience was mostly Pembroke Pines residents — some of whom live closer to the CCA site than anybody in Southwest Ranches — demanding to know why they hadn't been consulted while schools and homes were built near the site.

Wasserman Schultz recruited friend Bob Butterworth, an elder statesman of Florida politics, to moderate a question-and-answer session. The questions were to be read from cards filled out by audience members. Only three people, out of the dozens in attendance, indicated that they supported the prison.

Much of the audience had been recruited by Di Scipio's anti-detention-center group, which had publicized the event on Facebook and the web and put up signs. What Wasserman Schultz had intended as an opportunity to spread information, the activists had seized on as a rare chance to speak candidly to ICE and CCA honchos.

The meeting devolved into a circus. Residents asked Mayberry, the CCA vice president, about a recent news report that the company had been avoiding property taxes by renting cows to graze on the property. "We have done everything we are allowed to do and take advantage of exemptions as any business would," she said.

Whenever residents complained that they hadn't been made aware of plans to build the detention facility, Mayor Nelson countered that the process had been thoroughly vetted and rattled off a history of the decades-old deal.

In response, a woman stood up and read the email from Poliakoff that Di Scipio had discovered, in which the town attorney had said, "the less we say the better off we will be." If Poliakoff hadn't meant to sound conspiratorial, his words were certainly interpreted that way by the jeering crowd. He did not speak at the meeting.

Things took a turn when Frank Ortis, mayor of Pembroke Pines, took the podium. "The longer I sit in this meeting, the angrier I'm getting," he said. But he wasn't angry at the raucous crowd, which was booing him. "I've told you this is a Southwest Ranches issue," he said. "We don't have a vote in it... This is what happens when you don't go to the people first."

Before he could finish that last sentence, the booing had changed to thunderous applause.

PolitiFact Florida later rated his claim that Pembroke Pines "didn't have a vote in it" as "mostly false," citing four separate occasions when his city's commission voted to support or not interfere with development of the detention center.

Pembroke Pines Vice Mayor Iris Siple was next to take the stage. She said that part of the firefighting agreement — the part that said her city would provide water and sewer to the facility — had been added by Southwest Ranches without notice at the last minute and that she hadn't seen it before voting.

"I just sent a text to our city clerk," she said, "asking to add an item to the agenda for our next meeting, where I will ask my fellow commissioners to consider using the agreement's... termination clause." She was threatening, maybe promising, to withdraw the city's pledged support for services to the facility. More wild applause.

 

Today, Siple says she's still researching that option: "I voted for [the water and sewer agreement] because I didn't realize that it was there. I'm not going to take full blame, because no one else at our meeting brought it up either."

Poliakoff says the town added the water and sewer clause just a few days before Pembroke Pines voted on it "because they wanted to confirm that Pines had the capacity to service the facility." Its cancellation may be a moot point, he says: "In the event that Pines did not provide water, the facility would still be built but would have to provide its own water."

Poliakoff, who was in high school when CCA first started trying to build on the site, says the time to put up obstructions is long past. "The time to say you object? That was in the 1990s," he says.

But the work of the agitators left its mark on Pembroke Pines officials. They might have spent years quietly voting through development of the facility with little public feedback, but on the evening of Tuesday, January 10, city commissioners made a grand, if possibly futile, gesture. They voted unanimously to draft a letter of opposition to the detention facility — and send it to the president of the United States.

Poliakoff expects a final decision from ICE within two months. In the meantime, he's putting together a new contract with CCA that he says will be the best possible deal for the town. He promises plenty of time to review it.


Di Scipio has engaged the services of a rookie attorney in Tampa to sue the Town of Southwest Ranches for $1.25.

"It's the first suit I've gotten where the plaintiff's attorney's bar number is listed as 'pending,' " scoffs Poliakoff.

Di Scipio claims that the town clerk wrongly billed him for copies of records that he should have been able to view and photograph for free under state law. He had only a dollar and change in his pocket at the time, so he handed it over for a few pages of copies. Later, he took legal action, a crowning move on top of his months of research and frustration.

Poliakoff is treating the suit seriously — and thoroughly. Di Scipio says he was furious earlier this month when Poliakoff deposed his wife. As a possible upside for both parties, the men are not allowed to speak to each other as the case proceeds.

Ryann Greenberg, however, is more typical of residents who oppose the prison. A stay-at-home mom and Di Scipio's strongest ally in the fight, Greenberg lives in Laguna Isles, a Pembroke Pines development.

On a cold day, she brings her 2-year-old daughter to the playground by the clubhouse, where immigrant workers are laying new mulch and a fierce wind blows down the edge of the Glades. Something is burning in the distance, turning the sky hazy.

"It's been a challenging six months," Greenberg says of her recent past as an activist, organizing protests and digging for information. She understands normal glad-handing politics, she says, "but it's a completely different thing to put a prison next to homes and schools." Recently, she notes, the real estate firm Coldwell Banker sent a letter to prospective sellers, saying it wouldn't be held responsible for declining home values because of the prison.

"You should have done your homework," says Doug McKay, the vice mayor, in response to people whose home values stand to be affected. Most of the people who are now complaining bought their homes after CCA had moved in next door. Few of them, least of all Pembroke Pines residents, were aware of the long-term plans for Southwest Ranches.

"I'm not some idiot NIMBY person," Greenberg says as she bundles her daughter back into her minivan. "Nobody knew this was going to happen."

Back at home, she gets the neighbor to watch her daughter for a minute, then climbs up the steep grassy embankment behind her house. Across the street is a post office and, in the distance, the mound of the old county dump.

In between, where high-tension wires stretch overhead, is a little piece of Southwest Ranches: the empty plot owned by CCA. It's not beautiful or even very natural-looking, and it's obscured by trees on adjacent properties. An unremarkable sight, for now.

But if you lean over the hedgerow and squint really hard at it, on a clear day, when the sun isn't too low in the sky, you can almost see the money.

Bill Di Scipio and Ryann Greenberg, who live in neighboring cities, are leading the fight against the detention center.
George Martinez

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