Santa Ana Police Department headquarters, which includes the city's jail. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

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The Santa Ana City Council Tuesday night is scheduled to consider hiring a consultant to study alternative uses for the city jail, a major step toward canceling a highly controversial deal in which the city rents jail beds to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for immigration detainees.

Santa Ana’s ICE contract has been a source of outrage for Latino activists who consider it unconscionable for a heavily Latino city to be doing business with a government agency that they say breaks up families and routinely jails city residents.

But city leaders have always maintained that they have to rent beds to ICE because the jail has operated at a substantial deficit – with some years dipping millions of dollars into the red – which must be offset so it’s not a major drain on the city budget.

Voice of OC also looked at the jail’s finances and found that, although it’s financially viable, shutting the jail down would be more expensive than keeping it open in the short-run.

The city jail also has space dedicated to holding undocumented immigrants who are LGBT. The arrangement is supposed to be more humane and protect these people from the general population. But activists say transgender women often face abuses – such as strip searches from male officers.

Council members in February shot down a proposal to expand the ICE contract and hold more LGBT inmates after activists flooded the council chambers. At the time, council members asked city staff to come up with proposals to operate the city jail without the ICE contract, and if that wasn’t possible, to “terminate” jail services altogether.

But such a move remains politically thorny. Dozens of jail employees are members of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, and cutting their jobs will no doubt anger the police union.

Among the actions council is considering are issuing a request for qualifications to hire a consultant to conduct a jail “re-use study,” and authorizing the city manager to negotiate with the police union possible retirement incentives for full-time jail employees.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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