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Karnes County

Feds tell NBC family detention changes are confirmed, Karnes to hold fathers and children

The Department of Homeland Security is going to change the Karnes family detention center from a mother and child lockup to one for fathers and their children, according to an NBC News report.

NBC reports:

"Multiple government sources confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security intends to transition immigrant women and children out of the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Texas. The facility would instead detain male heads of household and their young children."

The first indication of this change came when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña told a congressional committee of the plans last month.

The change comes at a time when the Obama Administration’s policy of family detention is in flux. The same NBC News report also noted that the numbers of women and children detained in both Texas family detention centers are low, despite the facilities being built to hold thousands.

Meanwhile, the fight over state-issued child care licenses for family detention continues, with immigrant and child advocates calling for anyone opposed to granting child care licenses to speak up at a public hearing at the Karnes County Correctional Center (KCCC), a separate facility from the family detention lockup that is also operated located in Karnes City and operated by the GEO Group.

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Top Texas Private Prison Stories of 2014 - #2 - Karnes County votes to expand GEO’s troubled family detention camp

Almost as soon as it opened in August, the Karnes Family Detention Center was the subject of controversy.

First, immigrant rights advocates rallied around Sara and her 7-year-old daughter Nayely when word got out that the GEO Group was denying the girl medical treatment for a life-treatening brain cancer and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was refusing to release them. Calls demanding their released flooded the facility for two days.  Once reporters started calling, officials at the facility finally released Sara and Nayely. 

Nayely went on to get treatment at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin before she and her mother moved to be with family in the U.S. 

Then in October, news broke again of problems at the facility. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), along with Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.

According to the complaint, guards removed female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility, and attempted to cover up these actions.

The MALDEF release also says that "although this unlawful conduct was reported to Karnes Center personnel, to date, no reasonable actions have been taken to stop or prevent this abuse, or to prevent its escalation."

But that wasn't the end of the controversy. In November and December, the Karnes County Commissioners Court faced wide-spread public opposition to a proposal before them to approve GEO's plans to expand the facility. Several public meetings were packed as the Commissioners weighed the proposal. 

Though the Court would eventually vote 3-2 in favor of expansion, one commissioner who voted "no" was particularly upset over threats made by GEO. Commissioner Pete Jauer voted against the expansion in part because GEO Group said 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. 

The family detention center is now poised to expand to 1,200 beds and cribs in the New Year, which will also double GEO's profits on the facility. 

Karnes County Commission approves expansion of GEO's family detention facility


The Karnes County Family Detention Center has shown evidence of renovation and expansion since mid-September 2014.
The Karnes County Family Detention Center has shown evidence of renovation and expansion since mid-September 2014.
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.

Controversy over Karnes Commissioners Court approval of GEO expansion

On Decemb

Karnes Commissioners Court
Karnes Commissioners Court
er 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.

As family detention begins at Karnes, T. Don Hutto is the site of a protest

About 40 women and children arrived the morning of August 1 at the Karnes County detention center near San Antonio. Another bus was expected that afternoon. 

GEO protest sign
GEO protest sign

The Karnes detention center is operated by the GEO Group, a for-profit private prison company that was recently the target of hunger strikes by immigrant detainees in its custody three times in two facilities this year. The Karnes County detention center was was swiftly emptied of its current occupants to make way for women and children who have fled Central America. 

The newly-converted family detention center can house up to 532 people at a cost of $140 a day, according to the Houston Chronicle. 

Enrique Lucero, field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the Chronicle that while each case will vary, officials are planning an average stay of 23 days per family, underlining concerns raised by many attorneys that due process for those seeking asylum is being undermined. Lucero also admitted to USA Today that the family detention and deportation were being used to send a message. "After your immediate detention and due process, there's every likelihood you'll be returned to your country," Lucero said. 

KSAT San Antonio reports that there were no protestors at Karnes as the first buses arrived. However, the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor did see protestors on Saturday, August 9. The protest commemorated the 5th anniversary of the end of family detention at the T. Don Hutto detention center. About 50 people lined the street across from the detention center to protest, play music and screen a film about the practice of family detention. 

The protestors there vowed to go to Karnes next. 

Two buses are expected to arrive at Karnes daily, with a total of about 75 more women and children expected every day for the coming weeks.

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Family detention will return to Texas at the Karnes Detention Center, southeast of San Antonio

Family detention will return to Texas with the announcement that the Karnes County Civil Detention Center will be used to detain families and children who are seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The Houston Chronicle reports that ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency plans to start housing women and children at the center as soon as August.

The colorful facade of the Karnes Council Civil Detention Center.
The colorful facade of the Karnes Council Civil Detention Center.
Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration attorney, told the Houston Chronicle that Karnes as a "detention center with a smiley face. From the outside, it looks like a high school. It doesn't have the same prison-like exterior that most detention facilities have.

"But make no mistake, it is a prison."

Grassroots Leadership denounced the plans in a statement that reads in part:

The last time family detention was used in Texas, it became a national embarrassment as children and babies detained at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-toilets, were subjected to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.

“Given ICE’s shameful record of detaining immigrant families at the for-profit T. Don Hutto immigrant detention center, returning to mass family detention and deportation is a giant step backwards,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership.  “The experience at Hutto was abysmal, and we shouldn’t allow the return of such treatment of asylum-seeking families.”

The Hutto Detention Center was also operated by a for-profit private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, and was subject to a lawsuit by the ACLU and the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic contending that conditions at the facility violated minimum standards of care for detained children.   

The Karnes center, opened in 2012 and operated by GEO Group Inc., will house up to 532 detainees.

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Protestors to Wells Fargo: Divest from GEO Group!

On Friday, I joined a protest by Texans United for Families against Wells Fargo's investment in private prison corporation GEO Group.  The protests, part of a larger private prison divestment campaign initiated by immigrant and worker rights organization Enlace, took place in more than 13 cities aroun

d the country including in Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, and other locations. 

Wells Fargo is one of the largest institutional investors in GEO Group, holding more than 3.5 million shares or $92 million dollars in the private prison corporation.  Protestors are particularly critical of GEO Group's lobbying and role in building new immigrant detention centers, including the a new prison in Karnes County, Texas

According to the protesters press release:

"'The private prison industry relies on taxpayers for its income and then lobbies for policies that benefit its bottom line,' said Dave Kalloor of Texans United for Families. 'Harsh immigrant incarceration policies and new detention centers, like one Karnes County, Texas, are some of the most lucrative policies for GEO and other private prison corporations.'  ...

Wells Fargo’s support of the GEO Group is even more troubling in light of GEO’s history in Texas. GEO’s facilities include prisons, immigration detention centers, and juvenile detention centers where people have suffered from inadequate medical care and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Deaths, riots, and hunger strikes at GEO’s facilities are indicative of GEO’s culture of cruelty and underscore the need to end construction of new GEO facilities.

GEO is currently constructing a new immigration detention center in Karnes County, Texas. 'GEO and Wells Fargo profit from the detention and deportation system that separates families and tears our communities apart. Wells Fargo claims to support community-building and value ethics, yet they are investing in an industry with unethical practices that harm immigrants, people of color, and youth,' said Rocío Villalobos of Texans United for Families."

Check out Austin Indymedia's post for audio and additional coverage of the protest.  We'll keep you posted on developments from the private prison divestment campaign.

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