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.
Immigrant rights advocates and conservative U.S. congressmen alike were shocked and concerned about the speed with which the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) won and began to implement the contract for the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX.
The center, created in an existing "man camp" for oil field workers, is set to hold 2,400 people and is rumored to be opening in the early weeks of December. Plans for the facility were announced in September.
The unusual contract involves a lease agreement between real estate group Koontz McCombs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CCA, and the town of Eloy, AZ, which is nearly 1,000 miles away.
As a result of the contract being "passed through" Eloy — which already contracts with CCA — the competitive bidding process, environmental impact report, and other safeguard measures were completely bypassed in the interest of opening the detention camp as expediently as possible. This deal streams revenue to Eloy, but leaves them free from any of the liability that comes with running a private detention facility.
The contract has been the subject of protests at the University of Texas, where the business school is named for one of the partners in the deal — Red McCombs.
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.
San Antonio Express News reports that a lawsuit is being filed against Corrections Corporation of America for permitting a hazing tradition at Bartlett State Jail that ultimately led to the sexual assault of an inmate.
Bartlett State Jail is a prison facility for low-level inmates serving short-term sentences. The tradition of hazing inmates who are near to their release date involves forcibly removing their pants, turning them upside down and slamming them against the glass of the guard station. It is impossible for guards to ignore the behavior, as they are literally faced with the exposed backside of the inmate who is being hazed. Bartlett’s Warden Eduardo Carmona and other CCA executives were previously aware of the tradition and yet had never attempted to prevent it from happening.
According to the court documents, the hazing incident that resulted in the sexual assault was a three hour ordeal in which every single inmate in a 55-person block was subjected to the hazing practice while the single officer on duty — who was not only in charge of the victim’s block but three other 55-person blocks — did nothing to intervene.
Typically, in correctional facilities that follow best practices, there should be two officers on duty at all times so that one can intervene while the other calls for backup. Understaffing as a cost-cutting measure is routine at CCA run facilities and, clearly, it results in inmate-on-inmate violence with no intervention by staff.