TX: Advocates argue for more reform of T. Don Hutto, other private detention centers
T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor has been called “America’s Family Prison.” From May 2006 to September 2009, the facility housed immigrants awaiting deportation or seeking asylum — men, women (some pregnant) and children — and was the subject of criticism for human rights violations, poor conditions and other issues.
Standing out from other immigrant detention centers in the nation, Hutto has a long history of alleged violations, including accusations of rape and sexual assault, lack of medical attention and poor sanitary conditions. Though U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in late 2009 a series of reforms aimed at making detention centers more humane and less costly to run, activists say not much has changed at Hutto.
On Aug. 7, a year after the announced reforms, about 70 people showed up at the Hutto facility for a vigil protesting recent abuses and what they call a lack of progress at the center .
“People really felt like we needed to get together and mark the anniversary of what was supposed to be a large-scale detention reform,” said Bob Libal, Texas coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy organization opposed to for-profit private prisons. “We all thought we would be all further along, and instead we are at this point where there are more people today in detention than there were a year ago.”
Even after the reforms, Hutto still houses about 500 adult immigrant women and is still attracting controversy. In May, ICE admitted to an investigation regarding allegations that a guard, hired by Corrections Corporation of America (the largest private prison contractor in the country), sexually assaulted female detainees on their way to deportation.
**Story update: On Thursday just before 5 p.m., Williamson County deputies arrested Donald Charles Dunn, the former resident supervisor at Hutto, for allegedly fondling three women. According to a Sheriff’s Office statement, Dunn told law enforcement he had fondled women on numerous occasions.**
“In general, detention centers in Texas have been hit with all kinds of scandals, whether they’re ongoing sexual abuse scandals, or the expansion of the detention system at a time when people were hoping we would be moving away from that system,” Libal said. “Then there are concerns with long-term detention, mental health issues among detainees, and other vulnerable populations.”
A report released earlier this year by advocacy group Texas Appleseed detailed where the current detention system failed at addressing the needs of mentally ill detainees.
“Our year-long investigation revealed that immigrants with mental disabilities fare poorly in all facets of the U.S. immigration system,” according to the report, “from apprehension to detention, from adjudication to release.”
ICE and the U.S. Justice Department have agreed to review at least five recommendations made by Texas Appleseed to improve conditions for the mentally ill.
Conditions for any detainee are still questionable, though, said former detention center security guard Tony Hefner, who worked at the controversial Port Isabel Detention Center in south Texas about 20 years ago.
“It was a pretty depressing place. It was dirty,” he said. “It reminded me of a slaughter house I visited as a kid. The human waste. Immigration officers didn’t get [detainees] soap, towels.… We had them, but they didn’t give them out. The stink was really, really bad.
“It just seemed like the concrete of the place just absorbed the smell. You had to scrub it down to get the smell out; it just penetrated the whole place. The stairwell was littered with paper. They couldn’t use the toilets, so the detainees would have to urinate in other places.”
According to Libal and Hefner, many problems stem from the lack of oversight of private prison companies. While the government inspects facilities at least once a year, “[the center] knew when inspectors would be there, and they would clean the place up,” Hefner said. “So when people came through, it looked really nice. The detainees were not allowed to answer any questions. [Then] the next morning, it was bad again.”
Immigrant detention centers operated by for-profit private prison companies — among them Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation, and Cornell Companies — have been largely unregulated since their beginnings, according to various reports and organizations.
“There’s a problem of lack of accountability and lack of transparency,” Libal said. “For us, it’s how do you move away from that system of large detention, especially when the system is largely decentralized and when it’s being handled by private prison corporations?”
Making sure detainees are heard is another important factor, Hefner said. During his time working at Port Isabel, “complaint[s] would get lost,” he said. “They need some sort of director to monitor each complaint. These people are sick. Some of them die because they don’t get the attention they need.”
“I think it’s fairly common knowledge that ICE doesn’t have any idea who they’re detaining,” Libal said, “and that the vast majority of those people don’t need to be detained, and that the majority of these detention centers exist for profit.”
Changes could be on the way — ICE is currently looking into another series of reforms for CCA facilities and recently launched a system which allows the public to track immigrant detainees–though some activists are skeptical.
“It’s very difficult to reform a detention system that is this large and vast,” Libal said. “At its core, what we’re talking about is a detention system that is too large for ICE to have much oversight of.”