By RICK HAYES
---- — MT. VERNON — Nearly five months into the county's new fiscal year, it appears ICE (Immigrations, Customs & Enforcement) prisoners will soon be returning to the Jefferson County Justice Center.The federal prisoners were taken out of the local jail in early December last year due to missing medical documentation for some of the prisoners. Since that time, the county has hired an independent medical firm, Advanced Healthcare Corrections, to deal with medical issues at the Justice Center.Sheriff Roger Mulch said he was informed late Thursday afternoon the county had successfully passed an inspection conducted by Major Maury Meredith of ICE. Meredith was to make a recommendation to Ricardo Long, an ICE liaison between Washington, D.C. and Chicago, and then forward the recommendation to James Bond, the Chicago field office director.The swiftness in which the county begins to start receiving ICE prisoners depends on whether Meredith's recommendation is accepted verbally, or if the feds have to wait on his written report. Regardless, Mulch said he is depending on information he was originally given by ICE officials."They told us once the assessment was completed they (ICE detainees) would return very quickly. They want our facility back. We're very valuable because of our location near the two interstates and our close proximity to major airports, and because we have always done a good job of fulfilling their transportation needs," Mulch said. "We've continued doing that despite not having any detainees."Thirdly, Mulch said, "They like our bed rates. We're still operating off 2002 standards. They think that is a positive. They reduced our budget by $400,000 for the first part of our budget year because we've had no detainees, but right now $1.7 million has been allotted for Jefferson County for this fiscal year. That will tell you they never, ever negated our contract, and they were never not going to use us because they kept that money in the budget."The loss of ICE prisoners has placed a strain on the county's budget with several correctional officers, deputies, and county employees being laid off. However, Mulch said he never believed ICE prisoners would not return."We've worked very hard and kept track of what needed to be done and we've completed the mandates they've wanted to see within the medical division. We've been very patient waiting for ICE to complete their assessment. Now that we've gotten the green light, we're just waiting on those ICE detainees to return," he said.Mulch said the inmates will have to be detained for 30 days before the county can bill for services. The county should then start seeing checks roll back into the county coffers some 30 to 40 days later. Mulch said if the county receives ICE detainees by May 1 — and that could happen if the verbal agreement is accepted — ICE will operate off a 30-day schedule from that time forward. County officials previously projected it would take at least 50 ICE prisoners for the county to break even financially. Mulch indicated recently laid off employees will not be recalled at least 50 days before the first batch of ICE detainees are returned to the Justice Center.