ACLU sues ICE, private prison operator over sexual abuse at Texas immigrant detention center
Amid a national push to expose incidents of sexual abuse at immigrant detention facilities across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a federal suit Wednesday on behalf of three women who say they were sexually abused at a Central Texas facility with a history of abuse.
The suit names Donald Dunn, a former employee at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, just east of Austin, who pled guilty last fall to charges he abused women he was driving to the airport and Greyhound stations. Allegations by one victim prompted his arrest and a nationwide search for more victims, the Taylor Daily Press reported last year. “Eight female victims were discovered, and during the investigation, Dunn admitted to abusing them during transports,” the Press said.
Along with Dunn, though, the suit also names U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement and the Corrections Corporation of America — the country’s largest private prison operator, which runs the Hutto facility, for ignoring regulations that should have kept Dunn from driving the women on his own.
“The lawsuit alleges that ICE, Williamson County and CCA were deliberately indifferent and willfully blind to the fact that Dunn and other employees regularly violated the rule that detainees not be transported without another escort officer of the same gender present,” the ACLU said in a statement.
According to the suit, each of the three anonymous women — asylum seekers from Brazil, Guatemala and Eritrea — were being released from the facility after passing “credible fear” interviews, to await a hearing on their cases, when they were assaulted. The women say Dunn pulled over on the way to drop them off at the airport or bus station, groped them, told them to undress and exposed himself to them. Between October 2009 and May 2010, the suit claims, Dunn assaulted six other women too.
A CCA spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the complaint.
“The long history of rampant sexual abuse at ICE detention centers, coupled with the availability of the same opportunity Dunn exploited in the form of at least 22 documented failures of other male officers to comply with the same policy, supports a reasonable inference that other male escort officers at Hutto engaged in similar abuse,” the suit claims.
The Hutto Detention Center, once a residential center for holding whole families of immigrants, has been plagued by complaints about poor conditions and family separation, and has been an ACLU target in the past. Separate allegations of sexual abuse at the facility even prompted an ICE investigation in 2007.
Bob Libal with Grassroots Leadership — a group that promotes accountability for private prison operators and runs a visitation program to the Hutto facility — said the fact that CCA continues to operate the facility shows what light consequences the country’s largest private prison operators face.
“This is the second time that there’s been an inappropriate sexual event at Hutto, and ICE didn’t cut the contract,” Libal said. “There’s no impact for the company that allowed this to happen.”
After years of campaigning by the ACLU, Grassroots Leadership and other groups, the Hutto facility was converted from a family detention center to a 500-bed facility for women who’ve come to the U.S. seeking asylum.
The suit filed Wednesday in Austin is part of a nationwide effort by the ACLU to uncover records of sexual abuse and call for accountability. The group found more than 200 allegations of sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers across the country from 2007 to 2010 returned from a public records request.
“It is clear there is an urgent need for the government to recognize just how pervasive a problem the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is and take immediate steps to fix the problem and ensure that everyone in the government’s care is protected,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “The detainees in immigration detention are a particularly vulnerable population. Even one incident of sexual abuse is one too many.”
The group found 56 allegations of sexual abuse in Texas, far more than the next-highest total, 17 complaints in California.
“It’s pretty disturbing, and pretty telling, that such a high percentage of the sexual assaults happen here in Texas,” Libal said.