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November 2007

8 Year-Old Girl Seperated from Mother at Hutto

As if we need yet another reason to be angry about CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center, Associated Press reporter Annabelle Garay is reporting that an 8 year-old girl was left at the prison alone for 4 days while her mother was shipped to a south Texas detention center. The girl was left to be looked over by ICE staff and CCA guards, according to an ICE spokesperson.

The mother and child were understandably distraught over the separation. The mother's sister, a legal resident of Fort Worth, describes the situation to the reporter.

But Irma Banegas of Fort Worth said that's not what happened in the case of her sister and niece. She asked that they not be identified by name due to concerns for their safety in Central America.

Banegas said the mother and daughter told her they cried inconsolably after they were awakened and separated. "They've never been apart," Banegas said of her sister and her niece.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the story is ICE's spokesperson, Carl Rusnok, claiming that that family separation is a "extremely rare." To me, that means this is certainly not the first time ICE has left a child alone at Hutto. The separation of a child from her parents in a correctional facility is always serious. Remember, ICE has claimed that Hutto is exempted from child facility licensing because parents are always in the presence of their children. With that clearly not always true, Texas' Family and Protective Services may step in. According to the article:

Since opening last year near Taylor, the Hutto facility has been exempt from state child-care licensing requirements. ICE officials told the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that parents would be at the facility with their children and would be responsible for their care, so state regulation wasn't needed.

But if the state's child care licensing division receives a complaint indicating child care is being provided, it could investigate, said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Michelle Brane from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children puts it like this.

"There is something to complain about, because we're talking about a child's welfare," said Michelle Brane... "This is a perfect example of why family detention just doesn't work."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Keep your eyes out for an announcement about a December 16 holiday vigil at the detention center.

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T. Don Hutto: America's Family Prison - Screening Friday

I'll be attending Friday's Austin premier public screening of T. Don Hutto: America's Family Prison, a short film exploring the impact of detention on children and their families as well as legal and community opposition to CCA's T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

Details of the screening:

  • Screening of T. Don Hutto: America's Family Prison
  • Friday, November 16. 4:00pm.
  • Room 3.109 in Sid Richardson Hall at the LBJ School of the University of Texas (Near the corner of Red River and Dean Keaton.)
  • Sponsored by the Progressive Collective.
  • Special guest speakers on immigrant detention and filmmaker will be present.

Private Prison Companies Meeting Today in New York

A conference today in New York billed as "The Future of Prison Services and Privatization" will bring together executives from the major private prison industry to plot the future of the industry (or, in the words of the conference organizers, to "discuss this important and developing market").

The conference is hosted by Avondale Partners, an Nashville-based investment bank, and appears to be a who's who in the private prison industry with presentations by the CEO's private prison corporations Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Houston-based Cornell Corrections. Privatized prison medical service providers will also be present.

At least two of the companies, Cornell and CCA, will be web-casting their presentations, so we'll be able to let you know what they're saying about private prisons in Texas.

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How to Locate an Incarcerated Person

A reader recently asked us how to find out if a person has been arrested. While we are not aware of how to find specific information on arrests, the public, including family members and friends, can find out if a person is incarcerated in a county jail or state prison. This information is available for prisoners incarcerated in private and public facilities.

The information is publicly available, and many of the larger jails and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) make it available online. Below is a short list of some the larger correctional institutions and links to their prisoner databases. Smaller institutions may require a phone call to the facility.

Select Jails and TDCJ Information:

  • Houston (Harris County Jail):
  • Dallas (Dallas County Jail):
  • San Antonio (Bexar County Jail):
  • Austin (Travis County Jail):
  • El Paso (El Paso County Jail):
  • Texas Department of Criminal Justice:
TDCJ also accepts telephone and email requests for prisoner information. To locate a prisoner please call 936-295-6371, or 800-535-0283. Requesters can email the prisoner’s full name and 7-digit TDCJ number. If requesters do not know the TDCJ number, you must provide the exact date of birth and if that information is unknown you can provide the approximate age and county of conviction in order to obtain the following:
  • TDCJ number
  • Prisoner location
  • Offense of Conviction
  • Incarceration history: offense, county and court of conviction of offenses for which the offender was incarcerated previously
  • Current incarceration: offense, county and court of conviction
  • Projected Release Date

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TX Voters Approve Prison Expansion

Texas voters approved prison expansion this week as Proposition 4 passed among the state's various constitutional amendments. Despite opposition to the initiative, including from Grits for Breakfast, voters approved prison construction by a margin of 58% to 42%.

While Prop. 4 included other measures like funding state parks and a new facility for the mentally ill, the measure also obligates Texas taxpayers to fund the construction of three new prison units, the largest expansion since the 1990s.

We previously covered the expansion authorized by elected officials during the 80th Legislature. The budget that state policymakers passed in May authorized general revenue funding for new prison construction of nearly 4,000 beds. And while the recent vote authorizes general obligation bonds to fund new construction, correctional officials must get approval from the Legislative Budget Board before the building begins.

We will continue to monitor the developments of the expansion and let you readers know if private prison companies will operate any of these new beds.

Previous Coverage on the 80th Legislature:

  1. More Prison Beds on the Way
  2. Legislative Update
  3. 80th Legislative Session: Mixed Results on Private Prisons

Grits Takes On Privatization Myths

In case you missed Grits for Breakfast's excellent piece on privatization of juvenile detention services last week, it's here. Scott does a wonderful job of rebutting some of the pervasive myths about privatization of juvenile detention centers.

He also links to an excellent study (PDF) by Yale researchers Patrick Bayer and David E. Pozen comparing recidivism and costs in for-profit juvenile centers in Florida with public or non-profit centers. The study finds that while private for-profits juvenile detention centers may be more cost-efficient in the short-run, significantly higher rates of recidivism undermine those cost-savings. From the report:

Cost-benefit analysis implies that the short-run savings offered by for-profit over nonprofit management are
negated in the long-run due to increased recidivism rates, even if one measures the benefits of reducing
criminal activity as only the avoided costs of additional confinement.

Great work, Grits.

Who Benefits from Immigration "Zero Tolerance"

I've been interested in the issue of criminal prosecution of border-crossers since Grassroots Leadership, the organization I work for, issued a report on the subject called Ground Zero: The Laredo Superjail and the No Action Alternative (PDF).

Then, we found that the spike in criminal prosecutions of first-time border-crossers was rapidly increasing the need for U.S. Marshals bed space in South Texas, and particularly the Laredo district. Now, Laredo has gone to a "zero tolerance" policy where every border-crosser will be criminally prosecuted, instead of processed in immigration court and quickly deported. The policy is modeled after a policy in the Del Rio sector. The policy may expand to the Rio Grande Valley next.

Who are the major beneficiaries of this policy? As Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, the impacts of tighter border security, while possibly decreasing the number of crossings, can be deceiving. Without meaningful immigration reform, such policies appear to cause two phenomena:

  1. undocumented immigrants already working here are not going back for holidays, instead choosing to stay in the US for longer periods of time
  2. drug and human smuggling cartels are gaining strength along the border.

A third impact, as described by Forrest Wilder over at the Texas Observer blog is a drastic increase in the need for prison bed space. From Wilder's post,

In a nutshell, that means the agency will try to throw every single immigrant they catch into jail. Doing so will require yet more detention centers, jails, and prisons. Zero tolerance likely won’t stop in Laredo. Border Patrol assistant chief Ramon Rivera was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “We’re hoping it goes nationwide.” The courts in Laredo are already swamped.

Public defenders I talked to two years ago for a story said it was all they could do to provide a basic legal defense for their clients. The courts then were corral-like, with dozens of defendants coming before the magistrate on a daily basis. Laredo had to build a new 1,500-bed detention center to hold them all.

Guess who benefits from that? Yup, the private prison companies. In Del Rio, GEO will benefit from a recently-completed expansion the troubled Val Verde Correctional Center. In Laredo, GEO is set to benefit from a contract to operate the 1,500-bed U.S. Marshals "superjail," a project that has been increasingly controversial. And, in the Valley? Well, maybe Willacy County wants another private prison?

The policy question should be, does spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up non-violent border crossers make sense if it doesn't decrease the number of undocumented immigrants and may be empowering the smuggling cartels?

Of course, that doesn't ensure successful political grandstanding like "Lock up the illegals! Zero tolerance!" does. But maybe it's time to look past the political sloganeering, and try something new.

More Hutto News - the Problems Continue

I'm back to the blog after a couple days of despondency over Williamson County's decision to continue it's contract with the T. Don Hutto detention center.

I was reinvigorated to see Patricia Ruland's aggressive reporting in this week's Austin Chronicle. Amongst the bombshells dropped in the article was that undocumented immigrant workers were arrested and deported for working at the facility for CCA subcontractors. (Talk about a tragic irony, jeez...)

The unauthorized workers, along with an "inappropriate sexual relationship" between a staff member and a detainee, prompted ICE to issue a stern warning to Williamson County in May. (We posted the letter here last week).

Ruland also asks tough questions about the sexual relationship, and the refusal of Williamson County to prosecute the case:

Concerning the alleged sexual assault of a detainee, the question remains: Why was the guard not arrested or prosecuted? No one at the Oct. 9 commissioners' meeting seemed to know or care. CCA Senior Vice President Damon Hininger said the county was investigating the case, but Sheriff James Wilson said he didn't know the whereabouts of the case file and that District Attorney John Bradley had decided to forgo prosecution. FBI spokesman Erik Vasys said a subsequent federal inquiry was scrapped, too, but concurred that guard-on-detainee sexual contact is a felony in Texas and generally regarded as official oppression. Neither the sheriff's office nor the FBI has jurisdiction in the case, officials from both agencies said.

Carl Rusnok, spokesman for ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility, said that the county's investigation "clearly established it was not sexual assault, after evidence and statements from the CCA employee and detainee indicated and established that the encounter was consensual." ICE believes the county should have the case file, since it served as the primary investigative agency. ICE also referred the case to the FBI for any potential federal charges. Ultimate­ly, on June 12, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Austin declined to prosecute the case. Two days later, ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility closed its case.

And from KLBJ, it appears that Williamson's County monitor of the facility will actually be a team of people dedicated from the Sheriff's department.

The Williamson County Sheriff has appointed seven people in his department to act as liaisons between the commissioners court and the T Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor. Included in the appointees are three detectives, a captain and two sergeants. Detective John Foster is one of the officers on the team. Foster says they have been asked to, "go in and examine and look and continue to look at ….how things actually work at the facility."

CCA is paying the county $5,000 a month for this monitoring. Forgive me for being skeptical (given that the sheriff's office can't find the sexual assault case file, why would I have any reason to be skeptical?), but is a $5,000 monthly budget spread out amongst seven employees really going to accomplish much oversight?

How many monthly visits will be made to the facility for that $5,000, what will the investigators be looking for, and how will results be reported, if at all, to the public? It's possible this will be an excellent monitoring program, but given Williamson County's financial interest in seeing Hutto continue to operate, I'm doubtful...

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