The Jack Harwell Detention Center first made headlines this summer over complaints from attorneys over conditions for immigrants being detained at the facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a letter to ICE, attorneys said the Jack Harwell Detention Center is not an appropriate place to house immigrants in detention and that ICE officials have not done enough to fix serious problems at the facility. They detailed how the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found multiple non-compliance issues at the facility in 2012. “There were strong incentives for the county and the private facility management company to seek contracts with ICE whether or not the facility was appropriate for immigration detention,” the letter said.
This led to protests by Texans United for Families at the facility this summer. They delivered “know your rights” materials to the warden, demanded that the facility be closed and blamed the immigrant detention quota for the problems inside.
Then in December, a woman who was previously detained at the Jack Harwell Detention Center filed a lawsuit alleging that she was sexually assaulted "on a number of occasions" while incarcerated there from November 2012 to March 2013.
According to the plaintiff in the case, CEC's negligence includes the failure to maintain sufficient staff, especially female staff to search female inmates. The suit also alleges that CEC “fostered an unsafe and relatively uncontrolled environment, which allowed smuggling into the facility, improper relations within the facility and generally created an environment where there was a lack of reasonable institutional control at the facility.”
The Waco Tribune reported that until June 2013, Jack Harwell was run by private prison corporation Community Education Centers (CEC), which is now facing a lawsuit alleging gross negligence that led to the conditions that permitted the assaults to take place.
As for the immigrants held in Jack Harwell, advocates claimed victory when an ICE official told Texas Prison Bid’ness in September that immigrants were no longer being held at the facility.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was in South Texas this week to open what is slated to become the nation's largest immigrant detention center in Dilley.
Sitting on a former "man camp" for oil field workers, it will become the site of a new family detention camp for women and children who have recently come to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the first 480 women and children are expected to arrive this week in Dilley and temporary housing under construction nearby could hold an additional 2,400. They will be held in portable buildings that can hold up to 8 women and children each.
The privately contracted facility sits on 51 acres and will have 2,400 beds at a cost of $260 million per year to taxpayers.
Johnson promoted the facility as a deterrant to others who might flee violence in Central America and come to the border seeking asylum. In a statement at the opening of the detention center, Johnson said the facility is part of "the border security aspects of the executive actions President Obama announced on Nov. 20."
The ACLU agreed and has sued the Obama Administration claiming that family detention is being used to intimidate others fleeing violence in from Central America from seeking asylum legally in the U.S.
Karnes County Commissioners voted earlier this month to allow the GEO Group to more than double the capacity of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention center for immigrant women and children from 532 to 1,200 beds and cribs. The expansion was approved by a vote of 3-2.
KSAT San Antonio reports that the county will get $125,000 annually, and more jobs at the center. According to the GEO Group, the county will also see $500,000 in additional tax revenue.
The expansion was hotly debated in Karnes for weeks, with county commission meetings uncharacteristically packed with supporters and opponents of the family detention center.
Commissioner Pete Jauer voted against the expansion in part because of threats from GEO Group that they would sue the county if they didn't vote in GEO's favor. "I still don't like to live under the threat hanging over my head with their right to sue us if they're good neighbors,” Jauer told KSAT.
Celina Moreno, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told KSAT that investigations are still underway into allegations of some female detainees at the center being sexually abused.
A corporate spokesperson for the GEO Group told KSAT they are happy with the commissioners’ vote and that work on the expansion should begin in the next 30 to 60 days.
On December 1st, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the Karnes County Commissioners Court convened for a rapidly summoned special session on the expansion of the GEO-run family detention center, now called the "Karnes County Residential Center." Though the privately operated prison company has already made record profits in the few months since it was granted a contract to detain immigrant families, they are now asking to more than double the facility's capacity from 600 beds to 1300.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys testified about the humanitarian costs of child detention and the sexual assault allegations filed by women in the detention center that are still being invistigated. Other community members were concerned that GEO is attempting to bully Karnes County into approving the expansion, despite forcing the county to shoulder the burden of investigating sexual assault cases and transporting victims. Some also expressed that many jobs were given to people outside the community and the income the county receives from the prison didn't justify the costs. GEO officials claimed that the county is contractually obligated to approve the expansion.
Due to the controversy, the commissioners extended discussion to the December 9th Commissioners Court meeting where they were to vote on the measure. However, after hearing more testimony of human rights abuses, reports of understaffing from a supervisor who works at the GEO facility, and contractual guidance from county attorneys, the decision was once again delayed.