Serco: a bad deal for immigrant families and Jim Wells County

On Monday, county commissioners in Jim Wells County, Texas voted to partner with UK private prison company Serco to create a new detention camp for immigrant families. Serco operates one for-profit detention center in the UK and six in Australia. For more than a year, the company, which is reportedly struggling financially, has been pitching their family detention services to U.S. congressional staff.

Serco claims to have a “long-term, proven history of successfully delivering family-centric services” and their slick lobbying materials lay out how their approach would diverge from the way CCA and GEO operate the Dilley and Karnes family detention centers.

This glosses over the broad consensus from advocates, faith groups, legal service providers, and even House Democrats, that there is simply no humane way to detain families. But even putting that reality aside for a moment, Serco detention centers are so starkly different from conditions described in marketing materials, you wouldn’t believe they were operated by the same company.

As Mary Small of Detention Watch Network told The Guardian last June, “Serco seems to think members of Congress have never heard of Google, and that crossing an ocean means they won’t be held accountable for sexual misconduct by their staff and inadequate medical care in facilities in the UK and Australia,” said Small, policy director at the Detention Watch Network.

But Jim Wells County Commissioners have evidently not heard of Google, as a short jaunt on the search engine reveals equally shocking conditions and gut-wrenching testimony from immigrant parents detained with their children in Serco facilities in Australia as have been revealed at CCA and GEO detention centers.

There have been numerous reports of sexual assault in Serco facilities. Last year at Yarl’s Wood, in the UK, Serco admits to dismissing 10 staff in connection to sexual assault allegations. In Australia, since Serco began operating detention centers in 2009 there have been at least 34 reported sexual assaults in detention facilities. This echoes the recent incident at the GEO-run Karnes family detention camp where a mother says her daughter was sexually assaulted by another woman detained at the facility.

There is also an alarmingly high rate of attempted suicide and self-harm at Serco facilities, particularly those detaining women and children. The two family detention centers already operating in South Texas exclusively detain women and children. At the Serco Pontville Alternative Place of Detention in Australia, there were 49 reported incidents of threatened self-harm. One child told a representative of a human rights group, “At 3 a.m. if you come here you will see people walking around like crazy because they can't sleep," the child said. "They are going crazy so people cut themselves."

At Christmas Island, a Serco detention center that until recently detained families, suicide attempts were frequent. Parents described depression and desperation as staples of life in the facility. This excerpt from one mom’s testimony to the Human Rights Commission describes the impact of suicide attempts that reportedly happened in front of other children:

A woman also attempted suicide in the GEO operated Karnes family detention camp last summer, who was subsequently deported allegedly to obstruct the investigation. This is an inevitable result of caging refugees who have already fled traumatic events. As another child at a Serco facility in Australia said, "Even if you make this place heaven it is not enough for us because we feel like we are in a cage. We feel people see us like animals in a cage."

Medical neglect is also a common theme in CCA, GEO, and Serco family detention facilities. At the Serco-operated Christmas Island detention center, parents say that their children are perpetually sick from the many illnesses they catch, and this parent reported sparse medical staff and long waits to see a specialist and access needed operations:

These reports echo reports by Olivia Lopez, a social worker at Karnes who became a whistleblower after resigning, of terrifying incidents including a mother who had to take her son to the medical department four times for severe abdominal pain and plead with the nursing staff before he was finally sent to a hospital where he underwent an emergency appendectomy. In CCA-operated Dilley, 250 children were given an adult dose of the hepatitis A vaccine after being pulled from their beds in the wee hours of the morning.

Reports from a Serco staff contradict their lobbying materials and echo another aspect of GEO’s family detention exposed by Olivia Lopez. Lopez testified, "I walked in and thought, 'oh my Lord, this is really a prison.'" She said GEO was more concerned about not leaving a paper trail of complaints than providing families with social services. Though Serco claims to hire staff with social service, rather than prison backgrounds, a staff member at Pontville in Australia said:

I had never experienced this level of depression en masse and it disturbed me greatly. It appeared that many staff had prison experience, but did not have the training necessary to understand and work with traumatised asylum seekers.

Long story short, the conditions at Serco detention facilities are just as inhumane and prison-like as those at current U.S. family detention camps. But even for commissioners and county residents not concerned with conditions, a contract with Serco should give the county pause.

County Judge Pedro Trevino Jr. told the Guardian that "people are most interested in the jobs it [the detention center] would create." However, promises that private detention centers will bring economic stability are tenuous at best. A series of detention centers have recently closed or have extremely low occupancy, with disastrous results for counties that borrowed money for the detention centers expecting it to pay off down the road.

In LaSalle County, Texas, the LaSalle County Regional Detention Facility sits nearly empty. County Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr. told Bloomberg, "My fear’s always been that this would happen." Rodriguez said the facility has not created the outcomes promised when it was pitched to the county. "When this facility was sold to the county, they sold it as a money-making facility that was going to be a great economic boon."

Willacy and Maverick County facilities have also closed leaving the counties with high debt. Maverick County took out $43 million in bond to build an immigrant detention center that never met its promised occupancy levels and is slated to close. “The amount of the loan that was taken out on this facility was just ridiculously too high,”  Maverick County Commissioner Jerry Morales told Bloomberg. “It doesn’t add up.” Willacy County took out $61 million in bonds to build a detention center that was destroyed in a prisoner uprising. That all went down the drain when the federal government cancelled the contract and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the county’s debt rating to “junk.” Far from being the guarantee of economic stability sold by private prison companies, a failed immigrant detention center can leave counties worse off than when they began.

This particular proposed detention center in San Diego Texas brings additional risks as the legality of family detention is being challenged in the federal courts. Federal judge Dolly Gee already released a decision that said that detaining families in secure, unlicensed facilities violates the terms of the Flores settlement, which sets standards for how federal immigration agencies must treat minors in their custody.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to legitimate the family detention facilities, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) passed an emergency rule that lowered conditions to allow the facilities to receive child care licenses. After a lawsuit, a state judge in Travis County judge placed a temporary injunction on the licensing of the Dilley family detention center and could overturn the DFPS rule when she hears further arguments in September.

The federal litigation on family detention is ongoing, and it is possible that the judge could grant a motion to enforce, which could force the closure of all family detention centers.

Between the risks that come with any private prison venture and the uncertain future of family detention, a deal with Serco for a family detention center is a huge economic gamble for Jim Wells County. The county would do better to explore more stable opportunities for economic development that don’t involve partnering with corporations like Serco that cage refugee families for profit.