The Karnes City Family Detention Center came under intense scrutiny earlier this month when the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and lawyers from the University of Texas School of Law submitted a complaint that guards have been committing “substantial, ongoing sexual abuse” against the mothers being detained.
When the facility—run by the GEO Group—began receiving mothers and their children at the beginning of August, advocates remembered the conditions and trauma that the families detained at the T. Don Hutto facility had to endure from 2006 to 2009. On an ICE directed visit to the Karnes facility last month, mothers complained about the severe cold, poor food quality, and the lack of freedom that they and their children experience on a daily basis, a nearly identical description of initial conditions in the Hutto facility.
Private prison corporations like the GEO Group deal primarily in adult criminal detention, and are not equipped to deal compassionately with vulnerable populations such as recently arrived immigrant families who are seeking asylum. “The recent allegations of sexual abuse don’t surprise me at all,” Grassroots Leadership’s Immigration Projects Director Cristina Parker commented, "I'm sickened, but not surprised." A report jointly released by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies documents the lousy track record of the GEO Group when it comes to human rights abuses.
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 on September 30, 2014 with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.
In a press release about the complaint, MALDEF outlined the abuse allegations cited in the complaint to include the exploitation of vulnerable women by facility guards and staff, such as:
• removing 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 attempting to cover up these actions;
• calling detainees their "novias," or "girlfriends" and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and
• kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.
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."
The GEO Group denied the allegations and ICE had no comment.
In April, Juan Aguilar, a former GEO employee was charged with sexual abuse of a detainee. The victim of the abuse was being detained at Pearsall during his deportation proceedings. The two men were working in the kitchen when Aguilar pulled down the detainee's pants off and performed fellatio on him in the freezer.
On Wednesday, a jury took just over an hour to find Aguilar guilty, and he is nowawaiting his sentence. Aguilar’s lawyer reportedly argued that he had no authority over the inmate and that the act was “wrong but not a crime,” and likened it to someone having an extra-marital affair — morally wrong but not illegal. However, the law in Texas is clear that sex between inmates and employees is absolutely illegal.
This is not the first time that the GEO Group, and specifically the detention center in Pearsall, has been involved in a sexual abuse scandal.
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.