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April 2007

UN Human Rights Expert to Take His Own Look at Hutto Prison

A United Nations human rights expert will be visiting the US to review our treatment of immigrants, and will make a stop at the T Don Hutto prison in Texas. Jorge Bustamante, an independent expert for the Human Rights Council, will visit for over two weeks, visiting the border region along with Florida, Washington DC and New York. The U.S. government is facilitating the visit.

Bustamante will present his findings to the 47-member rights council in June.

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Geo Announces New Private Prison in Laredo

This week, the GEO Group, Inc. ("GEO") announced that it has signed a contract with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee for the development and operation of a 1,500-bed Detention Facility to house U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) prisoners in Laredo, Texas. The new private prison is scheduled to open in 2008. The contract has an initial term of five years with three five-year renewal option periods, for a total contract term of 20 years.

Currently, Texas operates more than 12,000 proposed or recently constructed private prison beds. The majority of these beds are intended to house federal detainees from the USMS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There are a few exceptions including the Reeves County Detention Center, a facility that received a contract to house incarcerated immigrants from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) under a Criminal Alien Requirements (CAR) contract. Many of these beds are being built or proposed as speculative prison beds, but several thousand are being built on contract from the ICE and USMS.

The expansion of immigrant detention facilities significantly increased in Texas due to changes in federal immigration policy. The number of unauthorized immigrant detainees has exploded from 6,785 in 1994 to over 22,000 in 2006.

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The Children in the Prison Aren't Wearing Uniforms, They Just All Have the Same Clothes

Earlier this year, the news media took the guided tour of the T Don Hutto prison, which holds children while they and their parents await their immigration hearings. Media members were allowed to film a few areas, but not allowed to interview anyone imprisoned there. But they were allowed to talk to someone from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about what a good idea it is to lock up entire families.

Strangely, the ICE spokespeople (and the ICE website) say that the children being held at the Hutto prison are not forced to wear "prison garb," but in the video (carefully shot so that no faces are shown), it's plain that all the kids are wearing the same clothing --- the medical-style "scrubs" that are familiar to us from other prison settings. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement web page for Hutto explains, "Residents are provided with t-shirts, sweat shirts and/or medical-style scrubs. (“Jail uniforms” are not worn)." So even though 400 people who are confined there wear the same clothes, and they're not the same clothes as the people who work there, we shouldn't call them "uniforms."

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Shutdownhutto.org

Shutdowhutto.org has several excellent videos that explain the problems with T. Don Hutto, Corrections Corporation of America's "prison for the whole family." They're also collecting names on an online petition with five key points on it:

  1. That the United States government shut down T. Don Hutto Residential Facility,
  2. That the inhabitants of Hutto be given full legal rights and not be deported or imprisoned again,
  3. That none of the families at Hutto be separated, and that the reunion of Hutto residents with other family members elsewhere be allowed,
  4. That the practice of jailing civilians for immigration charges cease,
  5. That the United States government immediately review its practice of contracting imprisonment out to private companies.

Visit the site, sign the petition, and let's get T Don Hutto closed!

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500 Million Reasons Texas Can't Afford Any More Private Prisons

Tomorrow lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives will debate HB 198, a bill that would raise the state’s cap on contracting for private prison beds. These policymakers appear to be considering expanding reliance on prison privatization in the context of an historic shift of focus in correctional policy. One the one hand, they can expand drug and alcohol treatment, revise parole standards,and modestly expand discretionary release, saving Texas taxpayers money and eliminating the prison bed shortfall -- the combination of treatment and discretionary release can save over half a billion dollars not just in the cost of incarceration, but also the savings from decreased crime. Or, lawmakers can enact HB 198, enriching private prison companies and digging an even deeper financial hole for the Texas Department of Community Justice.

Proven Strategies or Profit?

Safety Committee Chairman Madden and Senator Whitmire have proposed to address a projected shortfall in 2012 of more than 17,000 prison beds by providing treatment for thousands of non-violent and low-level drug offenders. Dr. Tony Fabelo has laid out a plan showing how greater reliance on treatment and modest increases in discretionary release rates could eliminate the prison bed shortfall, saving Texas taxpayers more than one half a billion dollars.

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Federal Judge Gives Fair Warning to ICE: Hutto Families Have a Case

A federal judge gave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency a heads-up this week, ruling that families confined in the T. Don Hutto facility will probably prevail in court on charges that the prison is substandard. One big problem with the current situation: children whose parents are seeking asylum in the United States should not be held in a modified medium-security prison.

It boggles the mind that the government is defending itself for locking up children in this prison. The Flores case, settled in 1997, set clear standards for the treatment of minors in immigration custody. Children awaiting immigration hearings should live with family members, or in a foster home setting if necessary. They should be held in "non-secure" settings (translation: not a place encircled with barbed wire). They should have access to schooling, medical care, and proper nutrition.

T. Don Hutto, operated by Corrections Corporation of America for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has never even come close to the spirit of the law, much less the letter of the law. It originally offered one hour of education a day, and twenty-minute mealtimes for the children, with no other nutrition available. Children wear prison garb, and are held at times in cells where toys are not allowed. Some children have been threatened that they'll be separated from their parents as punishment.

The immigration agency was hoping to promote this new "family-style" prison for an untold number of people, although Hutto at this point holds about 400 people, half of them children. Ten families are involved in the lawsuit over the substandard conditions, represented by the ACLU.

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Tightening Oversight of Texas' County Jails

So far in 2007, one in three Texas jails have failed state inspection because of problems with sanitation and safety. About 19 county jails that are publicly and privately managed have failed inspection. More people enter and exit county jails than state prisons on an annual basis. What happens in county jails does not stay inside of county jails -- it goes home with jail guards at the end of their shift and with the hundreds of thousands of jail detainees that cycle through county facilities each year. The safer prisoners and correctional officers are inside of county jails, the safer all Texans will be.

New legislation proposed by State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) would require the agency that oversees county jails to contract with special monitors to review and monitor facilities that have failed three consecutive annual inspections. This would help improve conditions in county jails across the state. Given that most people in jails are being released back into the community in less than a year, how safe our jails are relates directly to how safe our communities are.

For the past three years, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has found the Harris County Jail in noncompliance with Texas jail standards, primarily for conditions related to crowding. A state inspector concluded in 2005 that those conditions led to "safety" and "sanitation" issues. Additionally, the Dallas County jail has failed four annual inspections in a row. During an inspection earlier this year, holding cells were found to be over capacity.

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Prison in a box --- just unpack, assemble, and fill with people

Raymondville PrisonRaymondville Prison

I was fascinated to discover Sprung.com, the website of a company that's proud to display its catalog of ready-made prisons. Sprung is one of the companies assembling these insta-prisons across the country: domes made of fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, that are becoming more widely used as jails, immigrant detention centers and private prisons. For example, the Willacy immigrant detention center in Raymondville, operated by MTC Corporation, (pictured here) was constructed in 90 days, although not necessarily by Sprung.

The Sprung website boasts of their ability to build prisons quickly and "efficiently." Their web gallery of industries they serve includes churches, global military use, retail use, and a corrections gallery. The most telling photo in the corrections gallery is of a group of male prisoners eating at a long dining room table in one of these shiny white domes, with a whole table next to them sitting empty, waiting to be filled. The caption of the photo reads "Businesses can open ahead of schedule or expand production quickly."

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One Proposal to Get More Prison Beds Fast: Toss Out Health and Safety Requirements

At a recent Corrections Committee hearing, private prison lobbyists explained they could provide the state with hundreds of new prison beds if some standards for health and safety were eliminated.

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