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December 2007

Hutto News Round-up

There have been a host of news stories and web pieces on CCA's Hutto detention center and the legal and political advocacy around the facility in the past week. Here's a quick breakdown of a few of them:

Seeking Asylum: University of Texas website features UT Law Clinic

I received several emails yesterday pointing me to the front page of the University of Texas' website, which features a story on the UT Immigration Law Clinic's efforts to defend immigrant families at Hutto and the Clinic's involvement in the lawsuit for improved conditions at the prison, which was eventually settled by ICE. Kudos to Professor Barbara Hines and all the law students for their diligent work for a more just immigration process.

Advocates File Complaint Over Separation of 8 Year-Old from Mother at Hutto

AP reporter Annabelle Garay reports that lawyers at the University of Texas Immigration Clinic have filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties over the 4 day separation of an a 8 year-old girl from her mother. The girl was cared for by CCA guards and ICE staff while her mother was shipped to another detention center. UT lawyers have also filed a complaint with Texas Department of Protective Services, as Hutto's exemption from child care licensing depends on parents beind held with their children at all times.

Williamson County Approves Hutto Changes in Wake of Lawsuit

KLBJ is reporting that Williamson County Commissioners have authorized changes at the facility stemming from the lawsuit brought but the ACLU and others and settled by ICE in August. According to the story, Williamson County has approved changes including "greater access to recreational spaces in and around the facility, meals will have greater variety, rocking chairs will be made available, and better mattresses will be provided." As we've reported, Williamson County debated, but eventually rejected, a measure to end their contract with CCA over liability concerns after an "inappropriate sexual relationship" between a CCA guard and a detainee.

UT Law Students Deliver Toys to Hutto

On Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman featured an article about UT law students delivering some 500 toys and 200 books to children detained at Hutto.

The next Hutto vigil is scheduled for this Sunday. The T. Don Hutto blog has more information.


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7 Youth Sue GEO Over Coke County Sexual Abuse

Seven youth incarcerated by the Texas Youth Commission at GEO Group's now-shuttered Coke County Juvenile Justice Center have sued the company alleging sexual abuse facilitated by a guard who was a registered sex offender. According to the story from the Associated Press:

The young men allege they were mentally, physically and sexually abused in 2006 and early 2007 by a guard who was fired in March, after state officials learned he was on the public sex offender registry.

He had worked for seven months at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, operated by Florida-based GEO Group Inc. The facility housed Texas Youth Commission inmates until the teens were removed in October because of squalor and mismanagement.

One of the plaintiffs, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday, alleges that guard David Andrew Lewis let several inmates into his cell. They sexually assaulted him with a broom handle while Mr. Lewis watched, according to Dallas lawyer Bob Crill.

As we reported in October, TYC finally closed Coke County after a report by the agency's Ombudsman and inspectors showed the facility to have unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

This isn't the first time Coke County was implicated in a sexual abuse scandal. As Judy noted back in July, the juvenile detention center was home to one of the worst scandals in private prison history back in the 1990s when GEO, then called Wackenhut, hired a man who’d been arrested for a sex offense against a child, to work as a "lead careworker" at the prison, which then held young girls.

The man sexually assaulted 15 year-old Sarah Lowe, and continued to harass and threaten her after her release. Wackenhut settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money. Lowe, distraught because the lawsuit allowed the company to avoid responsibility for the assaults, committed suicide the same day the settlement was finalized.

This time around, the alleged wrong-doer says that he disclosed his offense, indecently exposing himself to a 5 year-old when he was 15, to the company and was cleared to work in the prison. According to the AP story,

Bob Crill, a Dallas lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said one of them alleges that Lewis allowed several inmates into his cell and then watched as they sexually assaulted the plaintiff with a broom handle.

Another of the plaintiffs, 18-year-old Deon Olthoff, of Granbury, said Lewis would stand too close to inmates as they showered and later started barging into Olthoff's cell to assault him. Olthoff was serving time for a parole violation after being convicted of burglary.

"He just came in and started choking me, and getting on top of me, and grabbing my hands and pulling them behind my back and stuff like that, and grabbing me in private areas," Olthoff said.

We'll keep you updated on this and the host of other lawsuits and scandals facing the GEO Group in Texas.

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Two Up-coming Hutto Events

These are two upcoming events protesting CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas. I'll be at both - and will have a report from the vigil - which should draw a large crowd. More information on both events is at

Hutto: America's Family Prison film screening and discussion
Monday, December 10, 7pm
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church will host a screening of Hutto: America's Family Prison, a short documentary film about the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas. T. Don Hutto is a converted medium-security prison that was reopened in 2006 to hold immigrant families, including children as young as newborns, in detention while awaiting immigration hearings. St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, 14311 Wells Port Drive, west of I-35 off Wells Branch Parkway. (512) 251-0698,

Candlelight Vigil for Families in Detention
Sunday, December 16th, 4pm-6pm
T. Don Hutto prison in Taylor, Texas
December 16th: speakers and vigil, 4-6pm; pre-vigil walk, 2pm

Join immigrant rights advocates, residents of Williamson County, and members of many faith communities in a vigil for families detained at the Hutto prison. The main program will begin at 4:00 pm, with the candlelight vigil starting as the sun sets. A walk to the facility from downtown Taylor's Heritage Park starting at 2:00 pm will precede the vigil. Advocates will also be gathering toys, music players, and books to give to families detained at the prison. Toys must be in their original packaging and cannot be wrapped.

Schedule of Events:
Vigil Events:
4:00pm - Program with speakers focusing on the immoral detention of families.
5:00pm- Candlelight Vigil and silent remembrance of families in detention.
2:00pm- Walk From Heritage Park in Taylor (4th & Main) to T. Don Hutto Prison
3:00pm- Gather at T. Don Hutto (1001 Welch) for protest and music.

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And the Door Revolves; GEO Hires ex-TDCJ Official to Oversee Regional Operations

The GEO Group has hired former Texas Department of Criminal Justice head Gary Johnson to head its operations in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, according to a story by Mike Ward in an entry on the Austin American Statesman's blog.

Gary Johnson, the former head of Texas’ prison system, has been hired as a regional vice president for a Florida-based operator of private prisons that became mired in controversy two months ago over conditions at a West Texas youth lockup.

Geo Group Inc. announced that Johnson will head its central region, which includes Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The territory includes the ill-fated Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, which made headlines in October after Texas Youth Commission officials yanked more than 100 youths from the lockup after alleging squalid conditions.

The revolving door between state agencies and private prison corporations is nothing new. Many of the problems at Coke County came while TYC monitoring of the facility was being performed by former GEO employees, who, apparently, weren't reporting many of the problems at the facility. Of course, Johnson was never much of a critic of the private prison industry. According to Ward:

While Johnson was executive director, the agency signed five-year contracts with Geo to house state prisoners at several lockups. He will oversee the operation of those lockups in his new job at Geo.

Who says public sector employment doesn't pay off? Mr. Johnson, you've got quite the task in front of you... We'll be paying close attention.

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Family of Scot Noble Payne Sues GEO Over Dickens County Conditions

The family of Scot Noble Payne, the Idaho inmate who committed suicide after describing horrendous conditions at GEO Group's Dickens County lock-up, has sued the private prison corporation. The lawsuit, which is attached, names both the GEO Group and many of it's top executives, including Chairman of the Board and CEO George Zoley and Chief Operating Officer Wayne Calabrese, amongst others.

The lawsuit alleges that:

  • GEO corporate officers executed a strategy of deceit and corruption in operation of Dickens and other facilities around the country, including making illegal payments to governmental entities in exchange for contracts,
  • Payne was held in deplorable conditions, including a filthy and cold solitary confinement cell with a blanket, sheet, and pillow that were covered with blood and human excrement, and
  • Conditions at the facility and GEO's negligence were responsible for Payne's suicide.

Payne's suicide and a subsequent investigation threw GEO's Dickens County lock-up into the spotlight. Idaho removed its prisoners from the facility this summer after the Department of Corrections' Health Director called the prison the worst prison facility he had ever seen, and an AP report called the facility's conditions "squalid."

Scot's mother, Shirley Noble, provided moving testimony to the state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in October. As Nicole reported earlier this week, GEO lost the contract to operate the Dickens jail, with private prison corporation CiviGenics to take control of the facility.

PDF icon Noble original complaint.pdf626.81 KB
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Will Private Prison Corporations Profit from Longer Detentions of Asylum Seekers?

I was dismayed to read this in an AP story earlier this week:

More people seeking asylum in the U.S. could be detained and then jailed longer under a new Homeland Security Department policy for people wanting safe harbor.

The new policy applies to people placed in so-called expedited removal, a broad post-Sept. 11 category for immigrants who arrive in the U.S. seeking asylum or whose immigration paperwork is incorrect, invalid or nonexistent.

The new policy will also clearly benefit private prison corporations. Facilities here in Texas such as the CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center, GEO's Frio County detention center, and MTC's "Tent City" facility in Raymondville, all stand to garner an increase in capacity from this rule change.

Just how many asylum-seekers are in detention in Texas or the United States? Surely, there is some government agency keeping track of such statistics, right? Well, apparently not. According to the story:

Asylum seekers are in detention in federal immigration facilities and county jails around the country. Exactly how many is unknown because ICE has not released statistics for two years, despite congressional mandates.

A total of 5,252 people claimed to have a credible fear of persecution in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Sixty-three percent of those claims were handled by ICE's asylum office in Houston, according to Homeland Security Department statistics.

In addition, putting asylum-seekers into expedited removal can put them at risk. According to the story:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found in a 2005 study mandated by Congress that the expedited removal policy puts people with legitimate asylum claims at risk of being returned to their home countries to be persecuted or tortured.

The commission also found asylum seekers were being jailed with criminals while they waited for a decision on their claims. In a follow-up study this year, the commission said little had changed.

Before relegating more asylum seekers into the far-flung ICE detention system, maybe it would be a good idea to first make sure ICE is following reporting and conditions regulations...

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Pepper Spray use on Youth at Private Facility

The Austin American Statesman recently reported that guards used pepper spray at a privately managed juvenile facility.

"We're gonna spray you," they [guards] yelled at the youth several times before wresting the door open and tackling him inside.

According to recently viewed videotapes, this use of force was used at GEO Group's Coke County Facility. After a series of audits conducted by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC)'s Office of the Independent Ombudsman and TYC contract monitors, the agency ended the contract in October and transfered the nearly 200 young prisoners to other prisons around the state.

In the wake of reforms, TYC officials authorized a more liberal use of pepper spray by guards. Earlier this week TYC convened a public hearing where advocates cited their concerns regarding the policy change. According to the Statesman, more than 1,200 reports of pepper spray use have been logged this year as of October compared with 200 all of last year.

TYC is in the process of finalizing the use of force policy. We will keep you posted these events continue to unfold.

Related coverage:

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CivicGenics will Manage Troubled Dickens County Correctional Center

The Associated Press recently reported that CivicGenics will assume management of the Dickens County Correctional Center. Previously, the GEO Group managed this prison where Idaho prisoner Scot Noble Payne comitted suicide. In regards to GEO's managment over the facility, Idaho prison officals have said that the county jail was:

... the worst prison they'd seen, citing what they called an abusive warden, the lack of treatment programs and squalid conditions they said may have contributed to the suicide of inmate Scot Noble Payne, who was held for months in a solitary cell.

In the story, Idaho officials admit they were not maintaining proper oversight of prisoners housed in facilities out of state. Yet, the state still continues to contract with GEO in Texas -- soon officials will finalize a contract with the private prison corporation to incarcerate 40 prisoners in the Val Verde Correctional Facility near the Mexican border.

According to Dickens County officials, CivicGenics will manage the prison better:

GEO "thought they were too good," Sheldon Parsons, a Dickens County commissioner, told Idaho officials. "They're used to running bigger facilities. That just kind of didn't fit into our program. Civigenics will definitely fit."

CivicGenics executives state they will be able to incarcerate about 150 Idaho prisoners at the facility starting in January 2008.

As the Idaho prisoners continue to be held in Texas facilities, time will tell if oversight of these county correctional facilties improves. A recent Senate Criminal Justice committee hearing raised several concerns over the lack of oversight of these facilities. We will post new information as it develops.