Monday, April 24, 2006
A private correctional facility in Taylor could be undergoing some rather unusual renovations, complete with toys, safety scissors and playground equipment.
Under a new agreement approved by Williamson County commissioners, the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center would be remodeled to temporarily house illegal immigrant families being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Currently, there is only one such facility in the United States.
In December, the county approved a contract allowing the federal agency to house detainees at the facility, which is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The new agreement, signed last week, changes the class of detainees from adult men to families, said Dale Rye of the Williamson County attorney's office.
Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not confirm that the facility would be used to house families awaiting deportation but did say that it would house noncriminal immigration detainees.
There are no detainees at the facility now, officials said.
"We have negotiated with (Corrections Corporation of America) and other facilities in Texas," said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. "No decisions have been made at this time."
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a speech last month the government plans to open more family detention facilities, saying that, "up until now, we have not had the ability to detain families that have come across as a group because we don't have the capability to keep them together in a detention facility."
The facility in Taylor would change its name to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, and the interior would not be as restrictive as the current medium-security correctional facility, according to documents outlining the changes. It would still be secure from the outside and could hold 600 detainees, the documents say.
Men and women would sleep in separate sections of the building, but bunks would be padded for extra safety, and playpens and cribs would be added, according to the documents. Corrections Corporation of America would also provide classroom space and instruction for children and adults.
The only facility in the country that houses detained families is in Berks County, Pa., Fobbs said.
Typically, families that cannot be immediately sent back to their home countries are either separated, with men, women and children going to different facilities, or released on bond until their court date, she said.
Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor who runs the school's Immigration Clinic, said the plans for family detention centers could be part of a strategy to make it harder for immigrants to be released.
"Usually people who enter the United States without documents with children are released" on bond, she said. "They're not incarcerated."
Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, declined to comment on the new contract.
The county, which has an administrative role in the arrangement, will work as a go-between in billing transactions between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Corrections Corporation of America, said Rick Zinsmeyer, director of adult probation for the county. The county will earn $1 per day for each inmate at the facility — about $200,000 annually — if the facility is at capacity, Zinsmeyer said.
See follow-up below:
Immigrant Families Sold Out, Locked Up
"I want to be free. I want to go outside, and I want to go to school," pleaded a 9-year-old boy, on the phone from prison. This prison wasn't in some far-off country, some dictatorship where one would expect children to be locked up. He is imprisoned in the United States.
The boy, Kevin, is imprisoned in Taylor, Texas, at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility. His parents are also locked up there. The tale of how this family became imprisoned is just one example of how broken our immigration policies are in this country. It is a tale of children left behind, of family values locked up, of your tax dollars at work.
The parents are Iranian and spent 10 years in Canada seeking asylum. Kevin, their son, was born in Canada during that time. Their request for asylum was eventually denied, and they were deported back to Iran. Majid, the father, said he and his wife were jailed and tortured there. They soon fled to Turkey and bought Greek passports. They hoped to reapply for asylum in Canada, armed with proof of the torture they suffered in Iran.
On a plane back to Canada, a fellow passenger suffered a heart attack, requiring an unscheduled landing in Puerto Rico. Although they never had any intention of entering the U.S., because the plane touched down here, their passports were questioned and they were detained. The family was shipped off to Hutto. They have been there for more than three weeks.
Immigration detention places the family in a legal limbo that could leave them imprisoned indefinitely, perhaps only to be deported back to more torture in Iran.
This shameful practice of locking up children is bad enough. What's worse is that it is being done for profit, by the Corrections Corporation of America. CCA is the largest publicly traded private prison operator in the U.S. CCA has close to 70 facilities scattered across the country, recent earnings of $1.33 billion and a gain in its stock-share price of 85 percent in the past year. Industry analysts gush at the profit potential promised by private prisons. Their commodity: human beings.
A recent report issued jointly by two nonprofit agencies -- the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service -- titled "Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families," paints a grim picture of the conditions these families endure. While in 2005 Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain families in "non-penal, homelike environments," the report details how prison-like the Hutto facility is. While ICE announced Hutto as a new facility, it was formerly a prison.
Children as young as 6 are separated from their parents, kept in prison cells with heavy steel doors equipped with a sensitive laser alarm system. The children wear prison uniforms. They get one hour of school per day, and one hour of recreation. All non-lawyer visits are "non-contact," through a Plexiglas window speaking over a phone, to obviate the "necessity" of a full-body cavity search after each visit. Yet the chairman of the CCA board of directors, William Andrews, begs to differ: "The reports come from special-interest groups that are attempting to do away with privatization and the whole immigration situation. ... The family facility, particularly, at T. Don Hutto is almost like a home." Recent reports put the total number of children at Hutto between 170 and 200.
Close to a year after massive pro-immigrant marches occurred in every major U.S. city, immigration policy remains broken, with sensational crackdowns on undocumented workers, a planned multibillion-dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and more than 26,000 immigrants in prison.
CCA stock is up, but the spirits of 9-year-old Kevin are down, as he languishes in his federally funded private prison cell. He wants to go home to Canada, where he was born. U.S. immigration officials now hold his fate and that of his parents: deportation to possible torture in Iran, or political asylum and a possible return to Canada. With a Congress obsessed with nonbinding resolutions and the Bush administration that brought you Abu Ghraib and the Maher Arar deportation scandal, the prospects for Kevin and his parents are grim at best.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!