Whistleblower reveals harrowing details from inside Karnes family detention center

Olivia Lopez testifying at Congressional Progressive Caucus hearing on family detentionOlivia Lopez testifying at Congressional Progressive Caucus hearing on family detentionSocial worker Olivia Lopez spoke to media and House Democrats in late July about the troubling inner workings of the GEO-operated Karnes family detention camp near San Antonio, Texas. She called what was happening at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility “tantamount to torture” and said that she was shocked when she began working at the facility to find that it was “really a prison.”

Lopez revealed that she was rebuked for attempting to provide basic social services such as showing the families the geographic location of the facility and creating better ways to document their concerns. In December, Lopez received this directive from her boss: “ICE: We don’t tell them anything.” She recalled that psychologists were encouraged to falsify records in order to leave a clean paper trail, and that they reported families’ stories to ICE agents.

She also observed severe medical neglect inside the facility, including instances where GEO staff ignored severe abdominal pain and cranial bleeding in toddlers and infants until the emergency became so severe that they were flown to a hospital to undergo major operations. Additionally, Lopez said during one chicken pox outbreak, each “resident” was forced to submit to a blood draw in a way that terrorized children and left many with heavy bruising.

Lopez also confirmed reports of retaliation against leaders of a hunger strike that took place inside the facility earlier this year. She says that leaders of the strike were placed in isolation, sometimes being separated from their children, who were placed in the care of guards with no childcare license. Children were not told of their mothers’ whereabouts and were left to sleep alone without protection.

At various points, Lopez observed that ICE officials condoned and participated in the environment that GEO created, which isolated and terrorized the detained mothers and children. Lopez stated that she was compelled to resign from her position in April after being asked to withhold information from federal officials and follow policies that violated her social work license. Her full testimony the the Congressional Progressive Caucus is available here.

Willacy County still reeling after prison uprising as insurance doesn't go far enough for local community

Willacy County Correctional CenterWillacy County is still feeling the effects of an immigrant prisoner uprising that destroyed the privately operated Willacy County Correctional Center in February. The prison, run by Management & Training Corporation (MTC), was closed due to significant structural damage causing the relocation of 2,500 federal prisoners and nearly 400 employee layoffs.

Willacy County Correctional Center

According to recent reports, the county received about $4 milion in insurance money, but county officials say the money won't last long. Currently, the money is being divided four ways — clean up from the uprising, county administration costs, losses to MTC, and payments toward the $9 million bond to pay for the jail. 

In the meantime, hundreds in the community are struggling financially. One employee who was laid off in March said her unemployment compensation is insufficient and she is taking out a loan to help cover her bills. 

The county aims to get the facility up and running again, but the insurance money may not last. And, if the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) decides against renewing the contract, the county could face a big blow to their income. 


Three sentenced in Big Spring prison smuggling case, including a GEO guard

Big SpringBig Spring

Three people were sentenced this week in connection to what KFYO News Talk Radio in Lubbock is calling "prison smuggling ring" at the Big Spring Correctional Center (BSCC). The three include a former GEO Group employee.

Eva Bermea, who was working for GEO as a recreational specialist at Big Spring, was found guilty of smuggling tobacco and creatine to inmate Jonas Cruz, 34, who was selling the products to other inmates. Bermea, 42, was sentenced to three years probation, eight months of which she will serve under house arrest. Cruz had two years added to his 17-year sentence for methamphetamine distribution, to be served concurrently.

Cruz and Bermea also pleaded guilty to bribery of public officials and aiding and abetting.

The third party, Kami Nicole Bennet, 32, who recieved money from Cruz’s brother and packaged the contraband, was sentenced to one year probation after pleading guilty to misprision of a felony and superseding information.

Big Spring Correctional Center is a "Criminal Alien Requirement" prison for immigrants contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to for-profit, private prison corporation the GEO Group. Big Spring was recently in the news and was covered here by Texas Prison Bidn'ess blogger Marlon Saucedo over complaints from prisoners and their families about a lack of medical care in the prison.

KFYO reports that neither the BOP nor GEO Group have returned their reporter's calls. 

BOP operates 12 CAR prisons, all of which are contracted out to private prison companies. As of earlier this year, there were 13 CAR prisons, but an inmate uprising at the Willacy County Correctional Center left the facility uninhabitable and BOP canceled that contract with Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and moved the prisoners to other facilities around the country. 

Paralegal says ICE banned her from Karnes County Detention Center over Texas Observer article

A letter banning Victoria Rossi from entering Karnes as a paralegal.A letter banning Victoria Rossi from entering Karnes as a paralegal.

An Austin-based attorney and paralegal team claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has banned the paralegal from entering the Karnes County Residential Center after The Texas Observer published an article she wrote that was critical of the family detention center.


Paralegal and former Observer intern Victoria Rossi told the Observer that she thinks the timing of her banishment from working as a paralegal at the Karnes family detention center is suspicious because it comes after she published an article that detailed what she saw inside Karnes.


“I’m hoping it’s just a technical error, but the timing of it, I worry that it’s reactive to the article,” Rossi said.


Attorney Virginia Raymond, who employs Rossi as a paralegal, agrees. “It’s straight-up interference with access to counsel. It’s an intimidation tactic.”


The story begins in October 2014, when, Raymond submitted a security clearance application for Rossi which was approved by ICE. From then on, Rossi says she faxed the required intent-to-visit notices to Karnes, 24 hours in advance to any future visit to the facility.


Then, on January 15, Rossi arrived at the Karnes facility where officers stopped her from entering and questioned her about the purpose of her visit.


ICE officials told Raymond that there had been a clerical error on Rossi’s initial application and that Rossi only had permission to work in the facility as an interpreter, not as a paralegal.


Rossi and Raymond decided to reapply for paralegal access.


After completing a lengthy re-application for clearance process, Rossi and Raymond were denied once again on March 23. This time, the letter received from ICE gave no reason except that Rossi could not enter, “in the capacity of a paralegal.”


Rossi’s article for The Observer was published in February and, described her experience working at the Karnes family detention center:

We’d driven to Karnes because a family we represent—Reza and her daughters, Julie and Dalia (not their real names)—was scheduled to be released that night. Though a judge had set their bond impossibly high—impossible, that is, for an impoverished Honduran woman—we’d cobbled together the funds from individual donations and the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. An $8,000 money order had been deposited at an ICE office in San Antonio that morning. Now it was 3 p.m.; if everything went smoothly, Reza, Julie and Dalia would be free by nightfall.

Growing up, I always heard that immigrants came to this country “in search of better lives,” for “more opportunities.” They wanted to make money and to educate their kids, I was told. But the people in Karnes are scared. They’re running from something. And they’re not running just to the United States. According to the U.N., asylum applications to countries surrounding violence-torn El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 712 percent between 2008 and 2013. What happened on the U.S. border last summer was not, as some have said, an immigration crisis. It was a refugee crisis.

I could understand Virginia’s urge to see Reza. Karnes seemed like the sort of place where things could go wrong. Phones weren’t allowed past the metal detectors. There is no Internet access inside, and all the walkways and buzzers and antechambers separating the receptionist’s desk from the visiting area meant that communication with the outside world was difficult.

The Karnes detention center was at the center of two hunger strikes this month. In the first, 78 women refused to eat or use any services in the facility from March 31 to April 4. Ten days later, 10 women restarted the fast to protest their detention.


This isn’t the first time that ICE has been accused to retaliating against legal service providers. Raymond also told that another paralegal, RAICES' Johana De Leon, was banned from working inside Karnes after ICE accused her of organizing the hunger strike.


The Karnes facility holds 532 beds and cribs for refugee women and children and is operated by GEO Group.

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