In a May 13 court hearing, District Judge Karin Crump heard arguments on whether the state has authority to issue childcare licenses to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to a report from the Austin-American Statesman.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit — two detained mothers and advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership — asserted that the prison-like conditions of these family detention centers make them no place for children. Moreover, they argued that the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) cannot rewrite the rules to give itself power to regulate the facilities.
Four detained mothers testified Friday that after fleeing violence in their countries, instead of finding help they now feel incarcerated. They mentioned trouble sleeping because of guards entering their rooms every half hour, being served the same meals repeatedly, and children getting sick from water that tastes like chlorine.
One mother, identified as E.G.S., fleeing sexual violence in El Salvador, told the judge that her daughter had been sexually assaulted by another detained women while at the Karnes family detention camp.
The Austin-American Statesman reports that the Texas attorney general's office, as well as attorneys for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which operate the Dilley and Karnes family detention camps, argued that licensing the facilities would provide oversight that would enhance the safety of the children detained there. They pointed to the licensing process at Karnes as a success, as five employees were dismissed as a result of background checks conducted during the licensing process.
Pursuing licensing of the detention centers represents a major shift for the agency, which asserted for a decade that it did not have the authority to do so.
District Judge Karin Crump seemed skeptical of the state’s change of heart, asking, “How do you reconcile your own commissioner’s letter … where Commissioner (John) Specia very specifically stated that DFPS doesn’t have jurisdiction to do what you have done?”
Judge Crump extended the temporary restraining order preventing the licensing of the Dilley family detention camp until June 1 when she will hear further evidence in the case. She is now weighing whether to issue a temporary restraining order that would invalidate the new DFPS rule altogether that had allowed the Karnes family detention camp to obtain a license.
On Tuesday May 3, immigrant families and Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership filed a lawsuit to stop the state of Texas from licensing the Karnes and Dilley family detention centers. The suit comes after the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services granted a six month license to the Karnes County Residential Center on Friday April 29 despite deficiencies in the facility’s inspection. A spokesperson for the agency also announced that the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is expected to receive a license within the week.
In the suit, Grassroots Leadership and detained families argue that DFPS may not alter the standards of child care licensure to accommodate federal detention facilities without approval of the Texas legislature. Immigrant rights groups have argued that the state’s motivation for licensing the facilities is to defend harsh federal immigration enforcement rather than to protect children.
“Changing an interpretation of Texas law to help federal immigration officials enforce harsh detention policies is disingenuous and detrimental to the health of children in Texas,” executive director Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership told the Texas Observer.
In a previous lawsuit on the licensure in November 2015, Grassroots Leadership won a temporary injunction that required DFPS to provide opportunity for public comment before licensing the facilities.
A DFPS spokesperson told the Texas Observer that the agency is “reviewing and consulting with the [Texas attorney general’s] office” regarding the lawsuit.
On Friday April 29, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) granted a license to the Karnes County Residential Center, a federal detention center for mothers and children operated by for-profit prison corporation GEO Group.
The Department of Homeland Security has been pursuing state licenses for the family detention centers in Karnes and Dilley since a federal ruling in August mandated that the children be released within two months from the facilities because they violated the terms of the Flores settlement, which stipulates that children in custody of federal immigration officials may not be held in secure, unlicensed facilities.
Texas’ decision to license the Karnes family detention center was accompanied by an outcry from immigrant rights advocates, who have turned out in force at several public hearings to oppose granting child care licenses to the detention centers.
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio legal services provider RAICES, told the New York Times, “If you want a child care facility, you don’t contract with a for-profit prison company.”
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, said that the temporary license is valid for six months. During this time, the agency will conduct three unannounced inspections of the detention center, and grant a permanent license if the facility meets required standards.
Last week, Harris County, the state's largest jailer, announed that it was moving prisoners out of the county to private jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties to reduce overcrowding, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle, by St. John Barned-Smith. According to the story,
"The transfers — which are expected to cost the county about $180,000 a month in boarding fees — mark the fourth time in the past year that the sheriff's office has had to ship inmates to jails in other parts of the state.
The transfers come just days after Harris County was named as a winner of a $2 million grant to help officials here lower high rates of pretrial detention that could lead to release of hundreds of jail inmates.
The jail had reached 96 percent capacity by Friday morning, with 9,061 of its 9,434 beds filled, said Ryan Sullivan, a department spokesman."
That $2 million grant was part of a John C. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant of more than $25 million to eleven communities across the country to implement justice reform measures.
One might be imagine that two justice reforms that Harris County may consider would be reducing the jail population and not shipping prisoners out-of-county and further away from their loved ones, a practice that has been condemned by my organization and others.