The Texas Observer broke the news in September that Corrections Corporation of America was getting back into the business of family detention in the remote South Texas town of Dilley.
The deal was for a facility that now sits on a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. The property is part of Sendero Ranch, a “workforce housing community,” more commonly called a “man camp,” for oilfield workers. Sendero Ranch is owned by Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm.
The involvement of Red McCombs, a well-known University of Texas alumnus and booster, did not sit well with students at UT. At a protest at the eponymous McCombs School of Business, they demanded that McCombs either break the lease or students and faculty would push to have his name dropped from the school.
That wasn't the only thing about the deal that had people calling foul. The unusual contract involves a lease agreement between real estate group Koontz McCombs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CCA, and the town of Eloy, AZ, which is nearly 1,000 miles away.
As a result of the contract being "passed through" Eloy — which already contracts with CCA — the competitive bidding process, environmental impact report, and other safeguard measures were completely bypassed in the interest of opening the detention camp as expediently as possible. This deal streams revenue to Eloy, but leaves them free from any of the liability that comes with running a private detention facility.
Of course, CCA is not new to family detention. CCA operated the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center until 2009, when the Obama Administration removed families from the facilities amid outcry and lawsuits over the conditions inside. Reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-toilets, were subjected to highly restricted movement, and were threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.
The facility opened amid criticism in December and is planned to be the single largest immigrant detention center in the U.S. With a nearly $300 per person/per day rate, CCA is poised to make millions locking up asylum-seeking women and children in the massive detention camp.
The Jack Harwell Detention Center first made headlines this summer over complaints from attorneys over conditions for immigrants being detained at the facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a letter to ICE, attorneys said the Jack Harwell Detention Center is not an appropriate place to house immigrants in detention and that ICE officials have not done enough to fix serious problems at the facility. They detailed how the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found multiple non-compliance issues at the facility in 2012. “There were strong incentives for the county and the private facility management company to seek contracts with ICE whether or not the facility was appropriate for immigration detention,” the letter said.
This led to protests by Texans United for Families at the facility this summer. They delivered “know your rights” materials to the warden, demanded that the facility be closed and blamed the immigrant detention quota for the problems inside.
Then in December, a woman who was previously detained at the Jack Harwell Detention Center filed a lawsuit alleging that she was sexually assaulted "on a number of occasions" while incarcerated there from November 2012 to March 2013.
According to the plaintiff in the case, CEC's negligence includes the failure to maintain sufficient staff, especially female staff to search female inmates. The suit also alleges that CEC “fostered an unsafe and relatively uncontrolled environment, which allowed smuggling into the facility, improper relations within the facility and generally created an environment where there was a lack of reasonable institutional control at the facility.”
The Waco Tribune reported that until June 2013, Jack Harwell was run by private prison corporation Community Education Centers (CEC), which is now facing a lawsuit alleging gross negligence that led to the conditions that permitted the assaults to take place.
As for the immigrants held in Jack Harwell, advocates claimed victory when an ICE official told Texas Prison Bid’ness in September that immigrants were no longer being held at the facility.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was in South Texas this week to open what is slated to become the nation's largest immigrant detention center in Dilley.
Sitting on a former "man camp" for oil field workers, it will become the site of a new family detention camp for women and children who have recently come to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the first 480 women and children are expected to arrive this week in Dilley and temporary housing under construction nearby could hold an additional 2,400. They will be held in portable buildings that can hold up to 8 women and children each.
The privately contracted facility sits on 51 acres and will have 2,400 beds at a cost of $260 million per year to taxpayers.
Johnson promoted the facility as a deterrant to others who might flee violence in Central America and come to the border seeking asylum. In a statement at the opening of the detention center, Johnson said the facility is part of "the border security aspects of the executive actions President Obama announced on Nov. 20."
The ACLU agreed and has sued the Obama Administration claiming that family detention is being used to intimidate others fleeing violence in from Central America from seeking asylum legally in the U.S.
The newest film by Austin-based filmmaker Matthew Gossage about family detention, "No Sanctuary: Big Business and Family Detention" premiered to an audience of over 80 people in Austin, TX last Friday.
The film, a short documentary running about 30 minutes, gives a brief history of family detention and the coalition that brought it to an end at the T. Don Hutto family detention center. It also follows a mother, Sara, who together with her 7-year-old daughter was detained in the newly opened Karnes Family Detention Center. Sara and her daughter, Nayely, won freedom from Karnes after their lawyer took their story to Grassroots Leadership and the media. Nayely has brain cancer and was not receiving medical inside the Karnes County family detention center, which is operated by the GEO Group.
The film is available for advocacy and organizing groups around the country who want to learn more about family detention and what they can do to bring this practice to an end, once and for all.
Watch the trailer below. If you would like to show the film in your commnunity, email firstname.lastname@example.org