The Karnes City Family Detention Center came under intense scrutiny earlier this month when the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and lawyers from the University of Texas School of Law submitted a complaint that guards have been committing “substantial, ongoing sexual abuse” against the mothers being detained.
When the facility—run by the GEO Group—began receiving mothers and their children at the beginning of August, advocates remembered the conditions and trauma that the families detained at the T. Don Hutto facility had to endure from 2006 to 2009. On an ICE directed visit to the Karnes facility last month, mothers complained about the severe cold, poor food quality, and the lack of freedom that they and their children experience on a daily basis, a nearly identical description of initial conditions in the Hutto facility.
Private prison corporations like the GEO Group deal primarily in adult criminal detention, and are not equipped to deal compassionately with vulnerable populations such as recently arrived immigrant families who are seeking asylum. “The recent allegations of sexual abuse don’t surprise me at all,” Grassroots Leadership’s Immigration Projects Director Cristina Parker commented, "I'm sickened, but not surprised." A report jointly released by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies documents the lousy track record of the GEO Group when it comes to human rights abuses.
In April, Juan Aguilar, a former GEO employee was charged with sexual abuse of a detainee. The victim of the abuse was being detained at Pearsall during his deportation proceedings. The two men were working in the kitchen when Aguilar pulled down the detainee's pants off and performed fellatio on him in the freezer.
On Wednesday, a jury took just over an hour to find Aguilar guilty, and he is nowawaiting his sentence. Aguilar’s lawyer reportedly argued that he had no authority over the inmate and that the act was “wrong but not a crime,” and likened it to someone having an extra-marital affair — morally wrong but not illegal. However, the law in Texas is clear that sex between inmates and employees is absolutely illegal.
This is not the first time that the GEO Group, and specifically the detention center in Pearsall, has been involved in a sexual abuse scandal.
San Antonio Express News reports that a lawsuit is being filed against Corrections Corporation of America for permitting a hazing tradition at Bartlett State Jail that ultimately led to the sexual assault of an inmate.
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. Understaffing as a cost-cutting measure is routine at CCA run facilities and, clearly, it results in inmate-on-inmate violence with no intervention by staff.
As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year, based on stories covered by our blog. Our number one story of the year is the state's closure of two notorious Corrections Corporation of America prisons - the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility.
The story mirrors our biggest story of 2012, the growing momentum to close the Dawson State Jail. State lawmakers had pushed for the closure of Dawson and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, another CCA-contract prison, arguing that the state had extra bed capacity thanks to a declining prison population.
In August, advocacy organizations celebrated the closure of these two privately operated prisons. Over the preceding year, a broad coalition of faith, criminal justice reform, prisoner families, correctional officers, and civil rights groups had call for the closure of Dawson. Dallas CBS 11 reporter Ginger Allen ran a series of damning reports interviewing former Dawson prisoners and former guards at the facility.
Dawson's history was fraught with human rights violations. As Piper Madison reported in May of this year, The Texas Civil Rights Project and and Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for witholding information regarding the deaths of several women in the facility and a premature infant whose mother's cries for help were ignored by facility staff. TCRP filed requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act to compel CCA to disclose information regarding the deaths.
Autumn Miller, whose baby girl died four days after her birth at Dawson, filed a lawsuit against the facility "alleging cruel and unusual punishment." Miller spoke with Ginger Allen of CBS 11 in Dallas and NPR of North Texas, saying that her requests for help were ignored througout her pregnancy and, ultimately, while she was giving birth. Her daughter was born on a toilet in a holding cell.
Ulitmately, Texas legislators reduced TDCJ's budget by the exact operating amount of Dawson and Mineral Wells, and TDCJ then closed the facilities in August. Dallas Morning News reporter Scott Goldstein toured the facility after it closed and found some haunting messages left on the walls:
“I WANT OUT OF HERE NOW!!”
“Surrender to death or to life.”
“Don’t be afraid. Soon you will pass out of darkness.”