Almost as soon as it opened in August, the Karnes Family Detention Center was the subject of controversy.
First, immigrant rights advocates rallied around Sara and her 7-year-old daughter Nayely when word got out that the GEO Group was denying the girl medical treatment for a life-treatening brain cancer and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was refusing to release them. Calls demanding their released flooded the facility for two days. Once reporters started calling, officials at the facility finally released Sara and Nayely.
Nayely went on to get treatment at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin before she and her mother moved to be with family in the U.S.
Then in October, news broke again of problems at the facility. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), along with Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.
According to the complaint, guards removed female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility, and attempted to cover up these actions.
The MALDEF release also says that "although this unlawful conduct was reported to Karnes Center personnel, to date, no reasonable actions have been taken to stop or prevent this abuse, or to prevent its escalation."
But that wasn't the end of the controversy. In November and December, the Karnes County Commissioners Court faced wide-spread public opposition to a proposal before them to approve GEO's plans to expand the facility. Several public meetings were packed as the Commissioners weighed the proposal.
Though the Court would eventually vote 3-2 in favor of expansion, one commissioner who voted "no" was particularly upset over threats made by GEO. Commissioner Pete Jauer voted against the expansion in part because GEO Group said that they would sue the county if they didn't vote in GEO's favor. "I still don't like to live under the threat hanging over my head with their right to sue us if they're good neighbors,” Jauer told KSAT.
The family detention center is now poised to expand to 1,200 beds and cribs in the New Year, which will also double GEO's profits on the facility.
A bizarre hazing ritual at the Bartlett State Jail in central Texas that led to the sexual assult of one inmate and was the subject of a lawsuit against the Corrections Corportation of America is our #4 top story of the year.
As we reported in September:
Bartlett State Jail is a prison facility for low-level inmates serving short-term sentences. The tradition of hazing inmates who are near to their release date involves forcibly removing their pants, turning them upside down and slamming them against the glass of the guard station. It is impossible for guards to ignore the behavior, as they are literally faced with the exposed backside of the inmate who is being hazed. Bartlett’s Warden Eduardo Carmona and other CCA executives were previously aware of the tradition and yet had never attempted to prevent it from happening.
According to the court documents, the hazing incident that resulted in the sexual assault was a three hour ordeal in which every single inmate in a 55-person block was subjected to the hazing practice while the single officer on duty — who was not only in charge of the victim’s block but three other 55-person blocks — did nothing to intervene.
Typically, in correctional facilities that follow best practices, there should be two officers on duty at all times so that one can intervene while the other calls for backup.
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.
A woman who was incarcerated in a GEO Group operated facility in Eagle Pass is suing the company for undisclosed damages for not responding to her allegations of repeated rape by a guard. The woman, who was awaiting trial, was assigned to work in the kitchen where 27-year-old guard Luis Armando Valladarez raped her several times in a storage closet.
"The suit alleges that the guard told her not to resist or tell anyone or he’d kick her off kitchen detail, revoke her visitation privileges, remove funds from her commissary account, revoke her phone privileges or throw her in 'the hole.'" It also states that she went to another guard for help, and he disregarded her claim and never reported it to anyone. The GEO Group explicitly states that they have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assaults, but the woman's pleas for help weren't taken seriously until other inmates discovered what was happening to her.
This isn't the first time the GEO Group has faced sexual assault allegations, nor is it the first claim this year. The prison operating company is also dealing with complaints of sexual abuse at the Karnes County Residential Center and many are quick to point out that the company regularly understaffs its facilities—leading to the unsupervised and unsafe conditions.