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Private prison's scheme to license baby jails fails in Texas

Karnes County Civil Detention Center
A proposal written by a private prison company to license baby jails as child care facilities has failed, according to a press release from Grassroots Leadership.

The proposal was written to bypass a ruling by an Austin-area judge in a lawsuit filed by immigrant families saying Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) could not license the family detention centers as child care facilities. If the bills to license had passed, they would have resulted in the prolonged detention of families at two family detention centers in Texas —  the South Texas Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center. These facilities are operated by two private prison companies, CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group respectively.

Dilley family detention camp

The passage of this law would have been a boon to private prison companies, as evident by these companies paying lobbyists $480,000 to advocate for their interests to the Texas legislature.

Representative John Raney, a Republican who authored the House version of the bill, even admitted that the legislation came directly from a GEO lobbyist.

"I've known the lady who's their lobbyist for a long time ...That's where the legislation came from," said state Rep. John Raney, a Republican from the rural town of Bryan. "We don't make things up. People bring things to us and ask us to help."

In a legislative session where racism and bigotry won most of the time, having this bill die was a welcome, positive result.

Bill that would license "baby jails" dies in the Texas House

A bill before the Texas House of Representatives that would allow the licensing of family detention centers as child care facilities has died, reports The Eagle.

The bill, which was authored by by Rep. John Raney, was not heard before Thursday's midnight deadline to hear bills. The bill, House Bill 2225, would have allowed the two family detention centers located in Texas to be licensed as child care facilities. By licensing the facilities, the women and children detained in these detention camps could have been detained for even longer periods of time. The Senate version of the same bill was passed 20-11 along party lines and was referred to a House committee, where it could still be sent to to the House floor for a vote.

Rep. Raney stated that the bill would put an end to the legal dispute over the licensing of family detention centers in Texas. Following a ruling by a federal judge stating children could not be detained in secure facilities, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services approved a rule that would allow them to license the facilities. This was challenged in court by immigrant families, and led to an Austin-area judge issuing a final judgment saying that the family detention centers could not be licensed. That ruling is currently being appealed by the Texas Attorney General.

Rep. Raney then admitted that the bill was written by a lobbyist for the GEO Group who is a "longtime friend" of his. That is unsurprising, as the GEO Group is one of two private prison companies that operate family detention centers in Texas. The company would profit from the additional time that women and children would spend detained, as they are normally paid a per diem rate for each individual detained.

Following GEO's purchase of two correctional facilities and being awarded a new contract, this is a welcome setback for private prisons here in Texas.

Family detention centers are mostly empty — so why license them?

According to KUT, the two family detention centers in South Texas are mostly empty, leaving immigration judges who had been relocated to the centers with nothing to do.

Due to a low number of people being detained at the border, the number of individuals in the two family detention centers in Texas has dropped dramatically. Between the two facilities, there are only a few hundred people detained. The two facilities have a total capacity of more than 3,000.

Another reason for the low numbers is due to a federal ruling that stated that children could not be held in a secure, jail-like facility. To comply with the ruling, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the federal agency that contracts with the family detention centers — must release the children and their mothers in a short amount of time.

To bypass that decision, Texas State lawmakers this year proposed a bill that would allow the state to license this family detention camps as child care facilities. This bill, if signed into law, would be used to circumvent the ruling that an Austin-area judge made in a lawsuit but forth by immigrant families and allies against the licensing.   

The question is, why license the centers? There are less people being detained at the border, so there is less need for these detention centers. The answer is simple.

Money.

By being able to license these family detention centers as childcare facilities, the private prison companies who operate would be able to detain mothers and children for longer periods of time.

Most contracts between private prison companies have a clause written in them where they receive a daily sum for each person detained in their facilities. If the detention centers were licensed, it would extend the amount of time each individual is detained, meaning more money for the private prison companies. The author of the proposed bill admitted that the bill was authored by the GEO Group, one of two private prison companies that operate family detention centers in Texas. This shows that money, not looking out for the well-being of mothers and children, is what really drives legislation in Texas.

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Texas Senate passes bill that will license 'baby jails' as childcare facilities

The Texas Senate passed a bill that would allow family detention camps to be licensed as child care facilities, reports Raw Story. The bill now heads to the House.

The bill would allow family detention centers to be licensed as child care facilities, which would extend the length of detention for mothers in children detained at the centers. A federal judge ruled in 2015 that children could not be held in secure facilities that are not licensed child care facilities. To try and circumvent that ruling, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) approved a rule that would allow the licensing of family detention centers to continue.

This approved rule was then challenged by a lawsuit that was filed by immigrant families who had been detained in Karnes and Dilley — the two family detention centers located in Texas. An Austin-area judge issued a final judgement in December of 2016 that prevented DFPS from licensing the facilities. This ruling has been appealed by the Texas Attorney General.

To avoid more lawsuits and time in court, the Texas Legislature took matters into their own hands by trying to pass legislation that would allow Texas to license family detention centers as child care facilities. The Senate version of the bill will potentially waive regulations that other child care facilities must follow. A Texas representative recently admitted that a lobbyist from GEO Group, the private prison company that operates Karnes, wrote the legislation for this bill. GEO officials admitted in SEC filings that licensing would be good for the company  because it would prolong the amount of time women and children can be detained.

State Sen. José Rodriguez, who opposed the bill, insists that if this bill passes it will "lesser standards and lack of accountability that will result in women and children being harmed”.

He went on to say the family detention centers "are prisons and there’s no question about that. There may be some TVs here and there, some bunk beds, but it is a secure facility, a baby jail.”

New family detention center no longer being considered

A family detention center in San Diego, Texas, is no longer being considered as local officials cite low apprehensions at the border, reports the Caller-Times.

Last July, Duval County Commissioners voted to begin contract negotiations with Serco to turn an old nursing home into a family detention center. Serco, a UK-based private prison company, tried to negotiate with Jim Wells County to use the same nursing home, which is located in both Duval and Jim Wells County. The negotiation with Jim Wells failed following backlash from the community, leading to Serco reaching out to Duval County about the proposed facility.

In an email to the Caller-Times, Duval County Judge Ricardo Carrillo, who supported the work with Serco, stated: "Serco informed me back on Feb. 28 that after several meetings with (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials, the news is that they (the government) are not planning to move out on the family residential center approach at this time because ‘apprehensions are at an all-time low level.’”

While this is a welcome win to prevent more family detention centers, it comes at a time when Texas state lawmakers are considering bills to allow the state to license family detention centers as child care facilities. The state was unable to license the facilities following a ruling by Judge Karin Crump saying the state did not have the authority to license immigrant family detention centers. The ruling was praised by immigrant families and immigrant rights advocates who oppose the policy of family detention. The Texas Attorney General is appealing that decision now.

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Texas Attorney General appeals licensing case

On Monday the Texas attorney general appealed a judge's ruling that prevents two federal family detention centers in South Texas from being licensed as child care facilities, reports ABC News.

As we reported earlier, Judge Karin Crump ruled that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) could not license the South Texas Family Residential Facility in Dilley, Texas, or the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. This lawsuit was filed by immigrant families who had been detained in those facilities, who argued that the state’s motivation for licensing the facilities is to defend harsh federal immigration enforcement rather than to protect children. The temporary restraining order from Judge Crump prevented the licensing of the Dilley facility, and invalidated the license for the Karnes facility, which had been granted before the lawsuit began.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an appeal in order to have the two facilities licensed by DFPS, following the ruling by a federal judge last year that immigrant children would have to be released if the facilities were not licensed. The attorney general's office argued earlier this year that the licensing would improve safety because it requires improved background checks for employees and requires facilities to comply with unannounced inspections. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reviewing the ruling and a spokesperson has said that “operational activities continue without interruption at this time.”

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Immigrant families sue to stop licensing of Karnes and Dilley family detention centers

On Tuesday May 3, immigrant families and Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership filed a lawsuit to stop the state of Texas from licensing the Karnes and Dilley family detention centers. The suit comes after the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services granted a six month license to the Karnes County Residential Center on Friday April 29 despite deficiencies in the facility’s inspection. A spokesperson for the agency also announced that the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is expected to receive a license within the week.

In the suit, Grassroots Leadership and detained families argue that DFPS may not alter the standards of child care licensure to accommodate federal detention facilities without approval of the Texas legislature. Immigrant rights groups have argued that the state’s motivation for licensing the facilities is to defend harsh federal immigration enforcement rather than to protect children.

“Changing an interpretation of Texas law to help federal immigration officials enforce harsh detention policies is disingenuous and detrimental to the health of children in Texas,” executive director Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership told the Texas Observer.

In a previous lawsuit on the licensure in November 2015, Grassroots Leadership won a temporary injunction that required DFPS to provide opportunity for public comment before licensing the facilities.

A DFPS spokesperson told the Texas Observer that the agency is “reviewing and consulting with the [Texas attorney general’s] office” regarding the lawsuit.

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