Bill to License 'Baby Jails' as Child Care Facilities Clears First Legislative Hurdle

April 26, 2017
The Texas Observer

The private prison companies that run detention centers for immigrant kids and their mothers have a problem: They can’t legally hold families for an extended period in Texas unless they are licensed as child care facilities. The Texas Legislature has a solution, though. On Wednesday, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would simply lower the state standards for family detention centers. The prison firms could skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must deal with.

“The point of the bill is to slap a license on the family detention center without substantially changing their operation,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant rights group. “It’s an attempt to maintain and expand the system of for-profit family detention.”

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Senate Bill 1018 would effectively lower state standards for family detention centers in order to license them as child care facilities. For example, the bill would allow DFPS to permit minors to share a room with unrelated adults, as sometimes happens in immigrant detention.

Due to federal court rulings, family detention centers can currently only hold children for a few weeks at a time, but the legislation would allow the centers to detain mothers and children for the duration of their legal cases, which can take months or even longer.

The Associated Press reported last week that SB 1018 was written by a lobbyist for the GEO Group, a prison company that runs the 830-bed Karnes County Residential Center. The facility brings in $55 million per year for the company from the federal government.

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Despite opposition from advocates, formerly detained families and Democratic lawmakers, the bill will now move to the full Senate.