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Hutto Still No Family Prison "Model"

Yesterday, there were a flurry of news stories about Tuesday's ICE-sponsored press tour at the T. Don Hutto family detention center. Nicole reported yesterday the favorable coverage that media outlets seemed to be providing Hutto in the wake of the tour.

Today, the media is far more critical of Hutto and the press tour. First, Lisa Falkenberg in the Houston Chronicle ("Imprisoned families: On the real tour," April 24, 2008) pens a terrific commentary taking on ICE's contention that the "family-friendly" additions to the facility would have happened without public scrutiny:

The family-friendly reforms come after more than a year of harsh media spotlight, tireless efforts by The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and a pile of lawsuits brought by the ACLU of Texas.

Yet, as immigration officials ushered reporters through the facility this week to show off their progress, one high-ranking ICE official tried to claim that the changes would have happened without the lawsuits.

"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated prior to the settlement," Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for detention and removal, was quoted saying in an Associated Press story.

Mead is the same guy who told me early last year — when Hutto's fence was still rimmed in razor wire and immigrant kids were still issued uniforms, counted three times a day and subjected to substandard education and health care — that his agency had already made the former prison as homelike as it could.

"I think we've done a very good job of softening things to make it as family-friendly as we can," Mead told me in February 2007.

That doesn't sound like a reform-minded official intent on pushing for major changes.

Falkenberg speculates that Mead's comments "may be nothing more than public relations spin." She finishes her piece by criticizing plans for more "Hutto-like" detention centers as

a troubling prospect in and of itself, considering that ICE has been specifically instructed by Congressional appropriations committees to prioritize alternatives, such as effective, less-expensive electronic monitoring. But one can only hope the mistaken model of converting a former prison into a "homelike" environment won't be duplicated.

Falkenberg's story is followed by a blog entry at Daily Kos titled "Hutto No Model for Prison for Children" by Gouri Bhat of the ACLU. Bhat was one of the attorney who sued ICE on behalf of families detained at Hutto over the prison's conditions last year. The settlement from that lawsuit is one of the factors leading to bettering of conditions at the prison.

Bhat calls Mead's statement that the activism and lawsuit had nothing to do with the changes at Hutto "disingenuous at best." She goes on to say,

Other reported statements by Mead are still more disturbing — specifically, his assertion that Hutto will be a model for future family detention centers to be opened by the government. Clearly, ICE’s enthusiasm for detaining families is undiminished, despite Hutto’s $33.6 million annual price tag and numerous admonitions from Congress to explore less expensive alternatives to detention before locking up immigrant children. If more family detention centers are on the horizon, the ACLU’s Hutto settlement should serve as a useful model in many respects and a cautionary tale.

However, despite the hard-won reforms at Hutto, the facility — managed by a for-profit adult corrections company — is still fundamentally and structurally a prison. As such, Hutto is far from the best or most appropriate place to house infants, toddlers, children and teens who are detained with their parents. Julie Myers, ICE Assistant Secretary and Mead’s boss, appeared to recognize this when she told Congress in October 2007 that "the physical structure of Hutto — a former prison — will not be used as the model for future facilities." We hope in this case, the boss is right.

We'll keep you updated on more media from the Hutto press tour as it comes out.

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