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.
Texas Prison Bid'ness is pleased to welcome Eshe Cole to our blogger line-up. Eshe is the new Mental Health and Criminal Justice Program Coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, one of the sponsors of Texas Prison Bid'ness.
Most recently, Eshe worked as a Program Coordinator for the City of Austin helping to develop a pilot program addressing maternal health disparities for African-American women in Austin/Travis County. She also spent the past few years working with Mamas of Color Rising, a local group of women who organize around various social justice issues pertaining to poor and working class mothers of color.
Originally from Temple, Texas, Eshe attended the University of Texas at Austin where she studied Sociology, African-American Studies and most recently received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology.
“I am very excited about the opportunity to work with such a great group of people fighting against the injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. I am looking forward to contributing to the critical work at Grassroots and helping to create change that matters.”
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 on September 30, 2014 with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.
In a press release about the complaint, MALDEF outlined the abuse allegations cited in the complaint to include the exploitation of vulnerable women by facility guards and staff, such as:
• removing 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 attempting to cover up these actions;
• calling detainees their "novias," or "girlfriends" and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and
• kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.
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."
The GEO Group denied the allegations and ICE had no comment.
On September 15, a Travis County District Court entered a final judgment that held Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, is a “governmental body” for purposes of the Texas Public Information Act and is therefore subject to the “Act’s obligations to disclose public information.”
This was the first time a Texas court had found that a private prison company was required to comply with the state’s public records law, joining courts in Tennessee, Florida, and Vermont.
District Court Judge Gisela D. Triana entered the judgment in a lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues and a project of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center.
PLN filed suit against CCA on May 1, 2013 after the company refused to produce records related to the now-closed Dawson State Jail, including reports and audits concerning CCA’s management of the facility. CCA operates nine facilities in Texas, including four state jails.
PLN had argued that CCA meets the definition of a “governmental body” under the Texas Public Information Act because – among other factors – the company “shares a common purpose and objective to that of the government” and performs services “traditionally performed by govern-mental bodies.”
In the latter regard, PLN noted that “Incarceration is inherently a power of government. By using public money to perform a public function, CCA is a governmental body for purposes” of the state’s public records law.
The court agreed, noting that “CCA failed and refused to disclose the documents” requested by PLN, which were “public information” as defined by the Public Information Act. Accordingly, CCA was ordered to produce the records; Judge Triana also ordered the company to pay $25,000 in PLN’s attorneys’ fees and costs, plus another $5,000 if it unsuccessfully appeals.
“That is the right result and clearly what the Public Information Act requires,” said PLN attorney Cindy Saiter.
CCA has vigorously opposed compliance with state public records laws and has lobbied against the Private Prison Information Act on the federal level.
“Although CCA acts as the functional equivalent of a government agency when it runs prisons and jails, it opposes efforts to hold the company accountable under public records laws to the same extent as government agencies,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “It makes you wonder what the company is hiding, and why it doesn’t want to be held accountable to members of the public whose tax dollars pay for CCA’s private prison contracts.”
“The public saw truly awful things when we began pulling the veil from the CCA-operated Dawson State Jail last year,” said attorney Brian McGiverin with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Today, allegations are coming to light of CCA’s complicity in a widespread sexual abuse hazing ritual at the Bartlett State Jail. Is it any wonder CCA opposes greater transparency?”
PLN was represented by attorneys Cindy Saiter with Scott, Douglass & McConnico, LLP and Brian McGiverin with the Texas Civil Rights Project. The case is Prison Legal News v. CCA, Travis County District Court, 353rd Judicial District, Cause No. D-1-GN-13-001445.