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Children fleeing Central America "would actually be a revenue stream" for West Texas city with a shuttered private prison

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A West Texas city is looking to get a boost from the humanitarian crisis of Central American children and families who have turned up at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Officials in the City of Littlefield are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to send some of the families to their empty private prison, and hoping it will be the end of a years-long debacle that started when the for-profit private prison came to town.

The facility in question, the Bill Clayton Detention Center, has been trouble for the city and taxpayers from the start. It was was built in 2000 as a state prison for juveniles, but the Texas legislature decided to remove juveniles from the facility in 2003. 

The GEO Group operated the facility until 2009, which was housing adults at the time. The facility shut its doors in 2009 after the company lost contracts in to hold prisons there from Idaho and Wyoming.  

Littlefield City Manager Mike Arismendez told KCBD in Lubbock that a contract with ICE could mean having the facility up and running soon to detain the women and children seeking refuge at the border. 

“It would actually be a revenue stream to be able to offset the debt we have on the facility,” Arismendez said.

The Bill Clayton Detention Center's troubled history has been extensively covered here

Randal McCullough, 37, committed suicide at Bill Clayton after nearly year in solitary confinement and soon afterward, the Idaho Department of Corrections cancelled its contract with the GEO Group and removed its prisoners from the facility. Idaho's audit uncovered a routine falsifying of reports; guards claimed to be monitoring prisoners at regular intervals, but were often away from their assigned posts for hours on end. 

When the GEO Group pulled out of the facility, it left Littlefield residents without revenue and responsible for an $11 million building project that is still a money pit. The town tried to auction the empty facility in 2011, but the only bidder pulled out. 

The idea to house refugee families at Bill Clayton is a bipartisan issue for Littlefield, with the support of both U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, and his Democratic opponent in the November general election, Neal Marchbanks, who also supports detaining families at Bill Clayton also.

“It sounds bad to put [children] in a prison, but that’s about all we can do," Marchbanks said

Rep. Neugebauer thinks Bill Clayton is worth a look for ICE. “The federal criteria is pretty high, but that’s a great facility," he told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on July 8. "Certainly, if they are looking for additional facilities, we want to make sure they take a look at it.”

However, by July 13 Rep. Neugebauer told the paper he didn't support the proposal to detain families there because it only encouraged illegal immigration and that he actually supported immediate deportation of the children. 

The proposal has stoked familiar fears in some Littlefield residents. "I’m afraid of what diseases might be brought into our school," local resident Cindy McNeese said.  Detained asylum seekers are not allowed to leave federal custody at immigrant detention centers. Marchbanks did admit that children coming to the U.S. from countries with unstable governments “are almost requesting political asylum.”

Project leaders don’t plan to significantly renovate the facility — just make it livable. They’ll remove intimidating razor wire, for example, and paint gray doors a cheerier shade of blue or red.

A new coat of paint is unlikely to be enough to quell concerns over putting families into detention. The history of family detention in the U.S. is abysmal, with the example of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center still fresh in the minds of many. At Hutto, reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open- toilets, 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.

A town hall meeting regarding the plan is set for 6 p.m. today, Tuesday July 14, at Littlefield Junior High School.