“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

Is the Government Rethinking Hutto Prison in Light of Lawsuits and Bad Publicity?

The US House has proposed funding more immigration detention options that are less like a prison and specifically noted that children should not be in jail-like settings. Examiner.com reports:

The $36.3 billion House Homeland Security spending bill would increase spending for immigrant detention alternatives to about $55 million.

The measure directs ICE to give families priority in alternatives to detention programs that use electronic monitoring, telephone call-ins and supervision to ensure people show up for detention hearings. The Intensive Supervision Appearance Program recently reported 93 percent appearance rate at court hearings, the House spending bill says.

The committee says in the bill that families with children should not be housed in jail-like settings, denied access to recreation or basic education instruction. (emphasis added)

This call to move children out of prison-like detention may be in light of the protests, lawsuits and bad publicity that the Hutto prison, run by Corrections Corporation of America, is amassing. The Texas Observer reports that the lawyers representing the Hutto families have filed 10 new complaints, since the government has released most of the people originally involved in the lawsuits.

The Hutto families' case goes to trial in August.

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Protesters Outside the Gate, Problems Inside the Gate at Hutto Prison

On top of the reports of possible sexual misconduct at the T. Don Hutto prison, two separate protests of the prison have hit the news in the last week. Protests last week and this week are calling attention to concerns about the inhumanity of the T. Don Hutto prison, which holds people awaiting their asylum hearings, including hundreds of children.

Last week's protest was in Houston but this Saturday protesters were right outside the gate. Criticism is mounting against the prison, which has rejected oversight, abruptly canceled a visit by a UN human rights expert, and recently fired a guard after catching him leaving a prisoner's cell in the middle of the night. The inquiry has been dropped without charges, but CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) has not rehired the guard. It's not clear what happened to the prisoner involved in the sexual assault, and of course ICE and Corrections Corporation of America are not interested in seeing the sort of negative publicity that a sexual assault inside Hutto could produce.

You may have noticed that many news reports about the sexual contact have specified that it was an "adult" prisoner. This is an important detail since roughly half the prisoners in Hutto are children -- children who are awaiting their immigration hearings to determine their status.

As flowtv.org has pointed out, the last time we jailed entire families was the internment of Japanese people during World War II. They link to an eerie promotional video of the inside of Hutto that ICE has provided showing the children in their little jail uniforms.

Another protest is scheduled for June 23 at the prison.

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More Prison Beds on the Way

Lawmakers are spending hundreds of millions for more prison beds following a complicated debate regarding different types of prison beds and where these additional prison beds will go. Legislators authorized the addition of more than 8,500 beds to the Texas prison system (see chart below). It's not clear yet how many of these will be operated by private prison companies.

Throughout the 80th legislative session a bi-partisan effort headed by state Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and state Representative Jerry Madden (R-Richardson) debated changes in Texas incarceration policy. The Whitmire/Madden plan always included prison expansion but legislators framed their rhetoric in terms of expanding treatment capacity by increasing beds in treatment prisons. The conversation will continue through the next biennium and has some lawmakers trying to find alternatives.

Those familiar with Texas corrections know that 30 years of Ruiz litigation has led to a complicated terminology in Texas where prisons aren't necessarily called prisons, but "Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities" and "Intermediate Sanction Facilities." People incarcerated in these lock-up facilities are technically still probationers and parolees who have not been revoked to prison.

However, make no mistake that these lock-ups are indeed prisons because the individuals detained in them lose their liberty and freedom for many months at a time.

The bed numbers provided in this post is based on the information we have available. Prison expansion continues to be a moving target. For example, while the budget authorizes general revenue funding for new prison construction of nearly 4,000 beds-- correctional officials must get approval from the Legislative Budget Board before the building begins. We also don't have reliable information yet about how many of these beds will be operated by private prison companies for profit.

Overview of New Texas Prison Beds
Authorized by 2007 Texas Legislature

Type of Prison Bed

Number of Beds

Probation Intermediate Sanction Facilities700
Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities1,500
Parole Intermediate Sanction Beds 700
DWI Treatment Beds500
Transfer of Juvenile Facilities to Adult Prison System1,200
Construction of 3 prison units3,990

Attempts at Parole Reforms Fail During Legislative Session

In the last week of the session, legislators tossed out a chance to fix one problem with the state's broken parole system. Grits for Breakfast has posted information about Chairman John Whitmire's attempt to pass SB 838, which would have limited prison time for technical parole revocations. The bill died a slow death during session, intially passing out of the higher chamber with a vote of 31-0, but failing to make it to the floor of the House for a vote that would have sent it to the Governor's desk.

Grits reported that Whitmire even tried to water down the bill and amend the dead bill onto HB 3200 on the floor.

But that was not the end of the story. Those watching the Texas legislative process know that HB 3200 had to be accepted by the House author, Chairman Jerry Madden, with amendments in order for the watered down parole measure to finally pass. That did not happen.

I was watching the House floor that day and saw Madden reject Whitmire's amendment, citing that parole had nothing to do with the probation funding mechanism that HB 3200 established.

Madden may have been right on that, but together, probation and parole revocations significantly contribute to the state's growing prison population. Reforms on both fronts -- particularly parole -- would have had real impact on sentencing and reduce Texas' need for more prison beds.

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