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Navy Bans Use of Miramar Brig for Illegal Immigrants

September 27, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The secretary of the Navy announced Thursday that the brig at Miramar Naval Air Station will not be used again to house illegal immigrant prisoners--the kind of prisoners who burned the brig last March.

Navy Secretary John Dalton, who had reviewed a proposal from the Department of Justice to resume housing illegal immigrants awaiting trial, said he was "not confident the plan would guarantee the safety of our military personnel and their families."

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), who had led the opposition, called the announcement "a victory for San Diegans" over the Department of Justice. Putting illegal immigrants in the brig endangered national security, Cunningham said.

In March, the Department of Justice, under an agreement with the Navy and a private jail firm, began using a wing of the brig for illegal immigrants who had been arrested for reentering the country after being deported for criminal convictions, mostly for drugs.

But within two weeks, a group of prisoners who were angry over commissary privileges, poor telephone service and bad television reception set fire to mattresses and threw a blanket over a surveillance camera. Twenty-four of 174 prisoners were hospitalized.

The fire did $500,000 damage and cost $1.5 million in medical care for injured prisoners. Ten Mexicans and a Costa Rican were indicted on charges of conspiracy and damaging government property.

Because the Department of Justice has begun to crack down on illegal immigrants with criminal records, jail space has been in short supply. The Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego has long been overcrowded.

U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, who had praised the brig idea as an innovative short-term solution until more jails can be built, said Thursday that he was disappointed with Dalton's decision. "At no time was there any danger to the naval community or the surrounding communities of Mira Mesa" because of the March 29 fire, he said.

Bersin said he and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno are determined not to retreat from the policy of increased prosecution because of lack of jail space in San Diego. "We are committed to stay the course," he said.

Since the fire, illegal immigrant prisoners who might have otherwise been sent to the Miramar brig have been sent to jails in Imperial County, Kern County and Arizona, costing millions of dollars in added transportation costs.

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