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December 2017

Guards Charged by Federal Agencies for Smuggling Contraband in San Antonio Prison

News broke in late December that guards from a privately run San Antonio federal prison is under investigation by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration for contraband and drug smuggling. The San Antonio Express News reported that two guards of the Central Texas Detention Facility were indicted by both agencies for smuggling drugs to inmates. “The jail, which is run by the GEO Group of Florida, has had a rash of contraband in recent years that includes cellphones, drugs and other prohibited items, court records show,” the article states.

The two guards, Abigail Jolynn Abrego and Jewel Roberto Jefferson, both pleaded not guilty to the charges. They were indicted with other non-employees, including two prisoners. “According to court records, Abrego and Belmares met Nov. 12 with an undercover FBI agent and agreed that Abrego would smuggle crystal methamphetamine to a GEO inmate in exchange for $1,500,” Express News reported. Jefferson also agreed to smuggle heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.  

The Central Texas Detention Facility is a Bexar County-owned detention center operated by the GEO Group that primarily incarcerates pre-trial detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service and has also held immigration detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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This is not the first case of smuggling at the facility, operated by private prison company in GEO Group. In 2011, the parents of Albert Gomez, Jr. sued the facility when their son overdosed of heroin smuggled into the prison. In December 2016, a grand jury indicted GEO Group employee Ray Alexander Barr of providing methamphetamine and alcohol to prisoners.

Asylum seekers detained and separated from families, driven to despair

The detention industry has profited in Texas from a recent shift in immigration enforcement: families with children as young as two years old are being separated and sent to different facilities and prisons. Women’s Refugee Commission and several coalition partners filed a complaint on December 11 to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) on behalf of individuals who were separated from their families at the southern border of the United States with Mexico. The complaint followed a number of cases of family separation that has had a devastating emotional toll on those incarcerated within detention centers.

The report lifted the challenges that families experience when separated in different detention centers, including privately-owned facilities in Texas. For instance, Camila is an asylum seeker who was detained with her 17-year-old daughter at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a CoreCivic detention center in Dilley. Texas. Her husband was transferred to the Port Isabel Detention Facility, while her U.S. citizen son was sent to live with Camila’s sister-in-law. With the family spread throughout the state, Camila said, “It has been very traumatic for our family to be separated in this way. It is difficult for my daughter and I to discuss it without crying. It has been very difficult for my daughter to be separated from her father and brother. I have never been separated from my son and I worry about him every day. We fled Mexico as a family and I believe we should have been kept together as a family, especially because my children are still underage.”

The detention facilities have responded to the separation by limiting contact between families. When Sofia, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, was separated from her husband and five-year-old son Rodrigo at the border, she learned that her husband Luis was in custody of the U.S. Marshals to be charged for illegal re-entry, a felony, though he came seeking asylum. Detained with her one-year-old son in South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, Texas, Sofia had no way to contact Luis or Rodrigo. The lack of communication negatively impacted Sofia’s legal case with no way to contact her husband from within detention.

The lack of communication between families has had negative impacts on detainees’ psychological health. Valentina, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, fled with her husband Hilario  and one-year-old son. While Valentina and her son were detained in Dilley, her husband was sent to Arizona. The facility in Arizona required a marriage certificate in order for the couple to exchange a phone call. Unable to access their marriage certificate, the family has been unable to communicate while detained for several months.

While the threat of family separation has existed in the past, it has been used sparingly with preference to the “catch and release” system. The increased use of the practice in recent months reflects the Trump Administration’s attempt to deter immigrants, though advocates warn it will punish rather than dissuade those who risk their lives to cross the border.

How will the private prison industry respond to family separation? While families are denied communication and access to visits from their loved ones, the detention centers retain power over detainees’ health and legal resources. Texas Prison Bid’ness will continue to monitor this change in enforcement practice and its impact on the detention industry of Texas.

Image Source: Detention Watch Network

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Women Incarcerated to Bring Burnet County Out of Debt

The Dallas Morning News reported on the growing trend of a rising women’s jail population in Burnet County following the facility’s turnover from state and private ownership to county ownership. When Burnet County decided to build a new jail in 2007, the private corporation LaSalle Southwest Corrections ran the facility by housing prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service and a drug treatment program with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


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The contract cost the county $40 million in bonds and had been “pitched as a revenue generator that posed no risk to county taxpayers.” The burden of the cost, however, led both LaSalle and Texas Department of Criminal Justice to withdraw from the contract after five years. According to the article, LaSalle lost $4 million in revenue. The article revealed the aftermath of private corporations withdrawing from contracts, leaving local officials to scramble for solutions.

In 2014, Burnet County owed $14 million in debt of bonds to a finance agency. To recover this debt, the county opened space for female prisoners, and by doing so, “inadvertently managed to capitalize on a trend,” the Dallas Morning News reports.  Across Texas, county jails have sought space to house female prisoners as the population of women imprisoned has increased. As a result of the changes at Burnet County jail, the population of women has increased to 76 in a month.

The Dallas Morning News also reported on the increased women’s population in Texas jails, though arrests are down, reflecting national trends of women’s state prison growth. The article recounted a disturbing trend of women incarcerated with both mental health and social needs, often held in jail prior to trial. Women’s populations have most notably increased in rural counties: “Brooks, Burnet, Galveston and Harrison county jails had gained enough pretrial female inmates to make them stand out from other similar counties. Of this group, Burnet county jail had the most unusual increase over time.”

The facility’s detention of women at increasing rates seems to reflect the need for profitability in a county left with a large jail and millions in debt, bolstered by the criminal justice system’s failure to account for the needs and rights of women who have likely experienced trauma and criminalization.

Burnet County Jail has a history of rights violations of prisoners and negative press attention. Texas Prison Bid’ness reported on the facility’s troubled history: LaSalle Southwest Corrections failed a security review in 2012 following a prisoner escape and received rebuke for failure to provide adequate medical care in 2009.

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FBI Takes Investigation on Sexual Assault in Hutto Detention Center

National coverage of the sexual abuse scandal at the Hutto Detention Center continues as Rewire reported that the FBI announced it would intervene to conduct an investigation. Laura Monterrosa, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, came forward publicly on November 9 to speak out against the abuse she experienced while she remains held in detention where her abuser is still employed.

The detention center, operated by CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA), has a history of sexual abuse incidents. In 2007, a CCA guard was accused of assaulting a woman detained with her son. In 2010, another CCA guard assaulted eight women in transport. 

 
Photo of Laura Monterrosa courtesy of Grassroots Leadership

In addition to Monterrosa, two other women formerly detained at Hutto have come forward with claims of sexual abuse. One woman, Ana, filed a formal complaint regarding sexual harassment and was subsequently transferred to the Laredo Detention Center. Another woman, named Esmeralda, also came forward to claim she was abused by the same guard as Ana.

Following interviews with Monterrosa, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a statement that it found Monterrosa’s claims unsubstantiated in a joint investigation with the Williamson County Sheriff's Office. This statement was not communicated to Monterrosa, who has been “left in the dark” according to Grassroots Leadership researcher and immigration organizer Bethany Carson.

Rewire interviewed Christina M. Fialho, co-founder/executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), who spoke on ICE’s secrecy in hiding abuses of power within detention. Fialho stated, “If more people knew what was truly happening behind locked doors, I think there would be an outcry against the immigrant prison system. So, ICE has an incentive to keep the public in the dark about what is happening behind locked doors. What better way to do this than to deny that any problems exist? By adopting a head-in-the-sand approach and declaring sexual assault complaints ‘unfounded,’ ICE and its contracted facility guards can continue to perpetrate rights [abuses].”

While sexual assault remains underreported in detention, CIVIC analyzed sexual assault reports from detention through a FOIA request to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Attorney General. The investigation uncovered that between January 2010 and July 2016, Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General received over 33,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse against DHS’s component agencies. But the Inspector General investigated less than 1 percent of these cases” (CIVIC).

Carson stated that Williamson County Sheriff’s Department contacted advocates prior to a press conference on December 4 to state that the FBI would handle the investigation. Questions remained, however, regarding the facility and governing agencies’ prior investigation: “If they do follow PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act], a policy for allegations is required, and now that the FBI has stepped in, everyone has kind of thrown their hands up and bucked responsibility for how it was initially handled—and we don’t even know how it was handled. This is all highly problematic,” Carson said.

Describing the issue as “extremely pervasive,” Carson added, “What is happening to Laura is endemic of detention centers and almost impossible to completely eliminate unless we eliminate detention centers.”

Texas Prison Bid’ness will continue to report on Monterrosa’s case and the developing investigation by the FBI as it is reported.

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Private Prison Companies Cash Out in Texas under Trump

According to reporting by Mother Jones, private prison companies are among the top profiteers from the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement practices.

Nearly one year after Trump’s inauguration, the prospects for the private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of American, or CCA) “have never looked rosier.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has surged its interior enforcement, increasing arrests by 40 percent, while requesting increased capacity for immigrant detention.

The administration’s first private prison contract went to  GEO Group in April to build a new facility in Conroe, Texas. The expected revenue boost totals $44 million annually.

The increased interior enforcement has facilitated the opportunity for ICE to request more detention facilities between the coasts: near Chicago, Detroit; Salt Lake City, Utah; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Following the administration’s announcement in October, GEO Group chairman and CEO George Zoley stated, “GEO has such an appetite for these kinds of facilities, particularly with the contemplated length of the contracts—which we estimate to be approximately 10 years.”

While Texas has the capacity to detain more than 10,000 people currently, according to Mother Jones’ count, ICE is seeking an additional 1,000 beds to incarcerate immigrants in the state. President Trump stated that the privatization of prisons seems to “work a lot better,” despite the countless human rights abuses documented in facilities.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, link to Flickr.

Members of Congress Call on DHS to Investigate Sexual Assault in Detention

Immigration advocates joined with congressional representatives to bring attention to the rampant issue of sexual assault in immigrant detention centers. In December, Newsweek reported that 71 members of congress sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security officials to condemn the agency’s failure to investigate claims of assault in detention.

The congressional sign-on letter named several cases of sexual abuse in detention, including the three women who came forward from Hutto Detention Facility in Taylor, Texas.

The national organization Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a class-action civil rights complaint on April 11 for the Homeland Security’s refusal to disclose records or investigate reports of sexual abuse. “According to CIVIC, Homeland Security received a total of 33,126 complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse from January 2010 to July 2016,” Newsweek reported. Less than one percent of those reports have been investigated, and 75 percent were filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) employees.

While ICE responded to claim that all reports are “investigated thoroughly,” the agency has not responded to CIVIC’s complaint. It also has filed a request with the National Archives and Record Administration to destroy its files of scandals and abuse, including reports of sexual assault, deaths of detainees in custody, and solitary confinement.

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