“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

Federal Judge Gives Fair Warning to ICE: Hutto Families Have a Case

A federal judge gave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency a heads-up this week, ruling that families confined in the T. Don Hutto facility will probably prevail in court on charges that the prison is substandard. One big problem with the current situation: children whose parents are seeking asylum in the United States should not be held in a modified medium-security prison.

It boggles the mind that the government is defending itself for locking up children in this prison. The Flores case, settled in 1997, set clear standards for the treatment of minors in immigration custody. Children awaiting immigration hearings should live with family members, or in a foster home setting if necessary. They should be held in "non-secure" settings (translation: not a place encircled with barbed wire). They should have access to schooling, medical care, and proper nutrition.

T. Don Hutto, operated by Corrections Corporation of America for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has never even come close to the spirit of the law, much less the letter of the law. It originally offered one hour of education a day, and twenty-minute mealtimes for the children, with no other nutrition available. Children wear prison garb, and are held at times in cells where toys are not allowed. Some children have been threatened that they'll be separated from their parents as punishment.

The immigration agency was hoping to promote this new "family-style" prison for an untold number of people, although Hutto at this point holds about 400 people, half of them children. Ten families are involved in the lawsuit over the substandard conditions, represented by the ACLU.

The judge, like any reasonable person would, puzzled over the actions of the federal immigration agency in this case:

"The Court finds it inexplicable that Defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort, and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family detention program, knowing all the while that Flores is still in effect."

Yes, it would actually be easier to just comply with the law than for ICE go to the trouble to fight this lawsuit for a prison that was illegal to begin with. Plus, let's face it: it would be way less morally reprehensible.

The judge has set a trial date for August, 2007.


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Tightening Oversight of Texas' County Jails

So far in 2007, one in three Texas jails have failed state inspection because of problems with sanitation and safety. About 19 county jails that are publicly and privately managed have failed inspection. More people enter and exit county jails than state prisons on an annual basis. What happens in county jails does not stay inside of county jails -- it goes home with jail guards at the end of their shift and with the hundreds of thousands of jail detainees that cycle through county facilities each year. The safer prisoners and correctional officers are inside of county jails, the safer all Texans will be.

New legislation proposed by State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) would require the agency that oversees county jails to contract with special monitors to review and monitor facilities that have failed three consecutive annual inspections. This would help improve conditions in county jails across the state. Given that most people in jails are being released back into the community in less than a year, how safe our jails are relates directly to how safe our communities are.

For the past three years, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has found the Harris County Jail in noncompliance with Texas jail standards, primarily for conditions related to crowding. A state inspector concluded in 2005 that those conditions led to "safety" and "sanitation" issues. Additionally, the Dallas County jail has failed four annual inspections in a row. During an inspection earlier this year, holding cells were found to be over capacity.

Increasing mechanisms for accountability will enhance compliance with the state’s minimum standards. Effective oversight of county jails will identify and correct safety problems in local jails, both public and private. In combination, these mechanisms can work to provide the levels of transparency and accountability that we should expect from our public institutions. Without safe jails, we're shooting our public safety efforts in the foot.

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Prison in a box --- just unpack, assemble, and fill with people

Raymondville PrisonRaymondville Prison

I was fascinated to discover Sprung.com, the website of a company that's proud to display its catalog of ready-made prisons. Sprung is one of the companies assembling these insta-prisons across the country: domes made of fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, that are becoming more widely used as jails, immigrant detention centers and private prisons. For example, the Willacy immigrant detention center in Raymondville, operated by MTC Corporation, (pictured here) was constructed in 90 days, although not necessarily by Sprung.

The Sprung website boasts of their ability to build prisons quickly and "efficiently." Their web gallery of industries they serve includes churches, global military use, retail use, and a corrections gallery. The most telling photo in the corrections gallery is of a group of male prisoners eating at a long dining room table in one of these shiny white domes, with a whole table next to them sitting empty, waiting to be filled. The caption of the photo reads "Businesses can open ahead of schedule or expand production quickly."

Right, because in the private prison business, locking up more people = "expanding production." Just unpack the prisons, assemble them, fill them with people, and don't ask too many questions about why we're spending this money and who is winding up locked up in there.

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One Proposal to Get More Prison Beds Fast: Toss Out Health and Safety Requirements

At a recent Corrections Committee hearing, private prison lobbyists explained they could provide the state with hundreds of new prison beds if some standards for health and safety were eliminated. Committee chairman Jerry Madden has filed HB 1354, legislation that repeals part of the government code instituted after a landmark case establishing standards for prison conditions, the Ruiz case.

HB 1354 would eliminate standards that prevents the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from housing prisoners in tents, cellblock runs, hallways, laundry rooms, converted dayroom space, gymnasiums, or any other spaces not specifically built for housing.

Additionally, the bill would prevent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from requiring in contracts with private prison companies more square footage per inmate than the least amount of square footage per inmate contained in any existing facility operated by the department. In other words, they want any new contract to be held to the lowest possible standard.

Prison beds built after 1991 are all at a minimum 40sq. feet, which is not the case with the old construction. Private prison beds must meet the standard of new prisons that have been designed to comply with Ruiz requirements, but this bill would allow them to comply to older standards that led to numerous problems and culminated in a lengthy, expensive lawsuit.

HB 1354 would set Texas back years in terms of standards achieved after the Ruiz lawsuit. The standards in place today were instituted to bring Texas in compliance with the Constitution. Federal and State laws require Texas to operate a constitutional prison system and assure the safety of prisoners and workers. If the only way that private prison companies can deliver new prisons is to ignore standards for health and safety, that's just another argument for why we can't afford any more private prisons.

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