“What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons.” -- Molly Ivins, 2003

Protests to Private Detention Centers Continue to Grow

When I first started following the growth of the private immigrant detention system in Texas several years ago, there were very few groups actively challenging immigrant detention and private prison expansion in Texas.

Today, organized campaigns to close private detention centers or stop construction of new detention centers in several Texas locales have gained momentum. Here’s a run-down of some of the action:

CCA’s T. Don Hutto Detention Center is possibly the most controversial of the private detention centers. This former medium security prison holds immigrant children and their families for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility has drawn oppositions from groups such as Texans United for Families, Freedom Ambassadors, Amnesty International, the ACLU, and University of Texas Immigration Clinic. The last two groups settled a lawsuit recently to improve conditions at the prison, mandate a monitor for the prison, and release some of the children at the prison.

MTC’s Willacy County Detention Center in Ramondville may not be far behind in its level of notoriousness. The prison, known alternatively as “Tent City” or RITMO, is a windowless series of Kevlar pods holding ICE detainees. It’s drawn protests ranging in style from vigils, prayers, blogs, and a community forum. Revelations from prisoners and guards that maggot-infested food was being served will probably not help the prison’s reputation, although expansion plans are in the works.

The Laredo “superjail,” a proposed contracted U.S. Marshals detention center, has seen opposition from a coalition of groups calling itself South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, which I have been involved with for several years. Initially proposed as a 2,800 bed detention center for pre-trial detainees (the vast majority of whom would be undocumented immigrants prosecuted criminally for crossing the border), the jail proposal has been downsized to 1,500 beds.

CCA’s Houston Processing Center has drawn several protests this summer, including a civil disobedience action which drew (ultimately dismissed) felony charges against the activists who chained themselves to the prison’s gates, and yesterday's protest, which drew 25 people and considerable media. I'll do a full write-up later today complete with photos.

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Willacy County Goes $50 Million More in Debt to Expand MTC’s Tent City

Last week, Willacy County Commissioners approved an additional $50.1 million in revenue bonds to expand the notorious MTC Tent City detention center. According to the Valley Morning News, the detention center, a series of tent-like structures made of windowless Kevlar pods that already has capacity to hold 2,000 ICE detainees, will expand by 1,000 beds.

The added debt will now mean that Willacy County must pay back $54.8 million to bond holders by September 2010 and another $56.6 million by 2028. The money brought in to the prison through the federal contract to hold the immigrant detainees is supposed to raise the capital to pay back the debt, while the private prison company (in this case MTC) takes a cut of the income as it goes.

As Forrest Wilder at the Texas Observer blog writes, that is a staggering $8,700 debt per resident of Willacy County, a county with a population of 20,082 and a prison capacity of 4,600.

The new bond deal led Commissioner Aurelio Guerra this week to question a “fixed annual fee” of $27.4 million that will be paid to MTC if the average monthly inmate count falls below 2,500 inmates.

Under the current contract, MTC is being paid a $27.75 per diem per prisoner held in the prison, according to the company. That rate would increase to $30.13 with the fixed fee. $30 a day per prisoner to pay for food (albeit possibly maggot-infested food), staff, clothes, services, AND a profit for MTC seems like a seriously low amount.

But that’s what is apparently happening because nearly 3/5 of the amount the government is paying for the facility is being spent to pay back Willacy County’s enormous debt.

If a problem occurs at Tent City (say maggots in the food – can we mention that too much?) and ICE decides to pull some of its prisoners,that can cause big financial problems for the county. According to the article, the county must maintain a minimum 1,700 detainees consistently to pay back its 20-year bond, so a serious drop in prisoner numbers could affect bond payments and lead to a decline in the county’s bond rating, a scenario that could hinder the county’s ability to issue future bonds for things like schools or parks.

According to Willacy County Commissioner Eddie Chapa, “We would love to have 2,500 (illegal immigrants) but we know that’s not going to be — we have to have the room available in case there’s an influx. If we get 2,200 to 2,300, we’d be very happy.” Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be something twisted about betting your county’s financial future on the hope that you’ll have a large and growing number of incarcerated immigrants.

As we’ve reported, Willacy County is no stranger to private prison scandals. Its history includes public officials convicted of accepting bribes from prison developers and a $47.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the Wackenhut Corporation by the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death in 2001.

Thanks to the Settlement, ICE Can Now Have Monitors at Hutto

ICE has not yet posted their statement about the Hutto settlement to the press room of their website (9 AM PT August 29th), which is surprising, given that to hear them tell it, the settlement is even better for them than it is for the children who have now been released from Hutto. From the Houston Chronicle:

ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda would not answer questions about the settlement on Monday, but she released a statement that defended conditions at Hutto and welcomed the outside monitoring.

The judge's participation "will help improve communication about the facility and end any misconceptions and allegations falsely made about the Hutto facility," the ICE statement said.

That's a fascinating argument for monitoring: that the presence of a monitor at a prison could end any false accusations of mistreatment, rather than end any actual mistreatment or address any issues of confinement that concern the children held there. Okay... so maybe ICE could've ended some of those false accusations by letting a leading UN expert on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, take a look at Hutto back in May, instead of inviting him and then abruptly cancelling his visit.

More from the article:

Pruneda also said Monday afternoon that ICE could not provide the number of detainees currently in Hutto.

Could not? Is it possible that they don't know? Highly unlikely. Like most correctional facilities, Hutto staff count heads a few times a day. (This KVUE article from the AP wire reports that counts there happen four times a day. This article also suggests that there are around 400 people currently detained in Hutto, but it's not an exact number.)

ICE probably could answer that question. But, then, the next logical question is, "how many of the detainees at Hutto are children?" and that's the question that they really don't want to answer. After all, hundreds of children sitting in a prison is a pretty unnerving image, and Hutto is unpopular enough already.

Speaking of which: the next vigil at Hutto is scheduled for September 29th.

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Breaking News: Government Settles Hutto Lawsuit

The Associated Press is reporting that the government has settled the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and others over the detention of immigrant children at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

The Hutto detention center, a converted medium-security prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has come under fierce criticism from human rights activists and immigration lawyers. The trial against ICE by several Hutto families was set to open today (Monday) but Judge Sam Sparks had already told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this spring that the families were likely to prevail.

The settlement does not close the prison or release all the children incarcerated there, but does better conditions at the jail. According to the ACLU's statement released today:

Additional improvements ICE will be required to make as a result of the settlement include allowing children over the age of 12 to move freely about the facility; providing a full-time, on-site pediatrician; eliminating the count system so that families are not forced to stay in their cells 12 hours a day; installing privacy curtains around toilets; offering field trip opportunities to children; supplying more toys and age-and language-appropriate books; and improving the nutritional value of food. ICE must also allow regular legal orientation presentations by local immigrants' rights organizations; allow family and friends to visit Hutto detainees seven days a week; and allow children to keep paper and pens in their rooms. ICE's compliance with each of these reforms, as well as other conditions reforms, will be subject to external oversight to ensure their permanence.

Since the lawsuit was filed, all of the 26 children named in it have been released from Hutto. The last few were just released prior to the settlement, moving out of the lockup to live with family members while they await hearings to determine their asylum cases. One child formerly locked up in Hutto, 12-year-old Andrea Restrepo, is quoted by the ACLU:

"I feel much better, I feel tranquil, I can do things now I couldn't do there," said Restrepo. "I am trying to forget everything about Hutto. I feel free. It was a nightmare."

Despite the settlement, the ACLU continues its opposition to Hutto and "remains adamant that detaining immigrant children at Hutto is inappropriate, and calls on Congress to compel the Department of Homeland Security to find humane alternatives for managing families whose immigration status is in limbo."

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