On any given day, at least 34,000 people are detained in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to meet an arbitrary lock-up quota dictated by Congress. Stopping the quota would be a giant step forward in ending our reliance on detention. Grassroots Leadership researches and exposes the role of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in enacting the quota contributes to the growing national movement to stop immigrant detention.
Detention and the #EndTheQuota Campaign
It’s not easy to find out what happens inside the walls of ICE’s numerous detention centers. Critics complain of a persistent culture of secrecy within the agency, and details about the circumstances of hunger strikes can be sparse even on the occasion that ICE will acknowledge one. Rarely will the agency grant more than a yes or no confirmation.
But through a FOIA request to ICE, ThinkProgress obtained a document that provides some clarity: CCA’s emergency food strike plan. The disciplinary nature of the company’s policy (embedded below) stood out to Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project who specializes in immigration detention.
“The thrust of the policy is to squelch the protest rather to address any medical or health concerns,” Takei told ThinkProgress after reviewing its content. “It’s very different from ICE’s hunger strike policy, because ICE’s hunger strike policy is primarily about medical procedures and medical concerns. This policy is about security and control.“
The policy also carved out punishments for food strikers, noting that participants would have their all of their commissary purchasing privileges suspended, and could have radio, visitation, and phone privileges removed if the center’s commander chose.
“I think it’s telling that it describes a food strike as a passive-aggressive form of protest,” Takei said. “I haven’t seen a detailed policy like this that lays out both the punitive attitude and the punitive procedures. Usually this is something that is done much more informally.”
But punishment for the October incident allegedly went beyond what was written into CCA’s policy. Grassroots Leadership claims ICE and/or CCA retaliated against strikers by placing them in solitary confinement and then sending them to other detention centers. In response to a FOIA request, ICE told ThinkProgress that Hutto does not use solitary confinement.
But Zelaya claims she was placed in isolation at the detention center and sent to a frigid room by herself. “When I participated in the hunger strike for my life and health I did it because I didn’t feel that they took good care of me… and for participating they punished me,” she said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress. “I was put in a room alone with so much cold, cold. I cried because my bones hurt from so much cold.”
Days later, she was transferred to a different facility, in Laredo, Texas. Read more about A Shocking Glimpse Inside America’s Privatized Detention Facilities For Immigrants
One little-known fact this year is that Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have benefited from prison lobbyist money. In fact, they've taken almost the same amount of contributions from major prison lobbyists. Clinton's campaign has received $133,246 while Rubio's campaign accepted $133,450 from the prison lobby.
According to a Vice News piece titled How Private Prisons Are Profiting From Locking Up US Immigrants, Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have taken virtually the same amount of donations from the two most influential prison lobbyists in the U.S.:
VICE reviewed federal campaign disclosures and found that lobbying firms linked to GEO and CCA have already contributed more than $288,300 to three of the leading candidates.
Clinton's Ready for Hillary PAC received $133,246 from lobbying firms linked to GEO and CCA. Rubio's PACs and campaign have taken a total of $133,450 from private prison companies or groups that lobby on their behalf. Bush's campaign and his Right to Rise Super PAC have received $21,700 from lobbying groups affiliated with GEO and CCA.
"These companies are investing their money for a reason," said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a group that fights to end for-profit incarceration. "That reason is to maintain policies that benefit them." Read more about Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton Accepted Almost the Same Amount of Prison Lobbyist Donations
As we finish up 2015, we thought we’d reflect on the year at Grassroots Leadership. We’ve had a terrific year of work and it couldn’t have been possible without the hard work and support of our staff, board, volunteers, allies, and donors. Please consider making a donation to help our work continue in 2016. Thank you, we couldn’t do it without you! Read more about The year in review: 15 highlights of 2015 at Grassroots Leadership!
A private prison firm that abandoned a detention center in South Texas, leaving leaders there to grapple with how to keep it afloat, won support from a community near Houston to host a new facility in a vote that came less than a week after a neighboring city rebuffed a similar proposal.
Emerald Correctional Management approached city officials in Shepherd on Monday, asking for permission to pursue a bid to build the facility in the small municipality of about 2,000 people an hour northeast of Houston. The Louisiana-based company is among three expected to submit bids to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency for a 1,000-bed detention center the federal organization wants to build in the Houston area.
Before Shepherd signed off on the proposal, Emerald approached nearby Cleveland, where leaders narrowly rejected the deal.
Private detention facilities have proliferated across Texas over the last two decades, in response to a wave of illegal immigration. The facilities were seen by many municipalities as a low-risk way to bring jobs and federal funds to small Texas communities.
But as apprehensions have dropped and beds across the state have increased, facilities have struggled. At some sites, detainees have held hunger strikes and riots because of poor conditions. In other instances, local counties that financed the facilities are dealing with unforeseen debt when the companies canceled contracts after the inmate population dropped.
At another, in the small south Texas town of Encinal, in LaSalle County, Emerald's operations came under additional scrutiny after it abruptly pulled out of the center after the inmate population dropped, saddling county officials with a facility with a leaky roof, about $20 million in debt, and scrambling to find a new operator to save the jobs of the 100 guards and staff.
Critics who have long opposed private companies operating prisons continue to be skeptical.
"Recent evidence does not add up that there's going to be such an increase in numbers of immigrants detained [by the government] that ICE is going to need thousands of additional beds," said Bob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that has long opposed the private-prison industry. "Often when these contracts dry up, [private detention operators] walk from the facilities. And in many cases, they have left communities high and dry." Read more about One community welcomes bid for detention center, another rejects it
A detainee participating in the weeks-long hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, confirmed women are being transferred to other detention centers as punishment for participating in the strike, according to audio released Wednesday by Grassroots Leadership, an organization that forms part of a larger umbrella group known as Texans United for Families (TUFF).
The woman in the audio clip said detainees are being told the transfers are happening because new women are arriving and the beds are needed, “but it has to be because of the hunger strike … because there are women who’ve been here over a year.”
“ICE can deny the hunger strike is happening and that these transfers are coincidental, but what that guard said is acknowledgement that this is punishment and retaliation for participating in the hunger strike,” Parker said. “In the face of all of this, the women want to continue resisting.” Read more about At Hutto Detention Center, the Women on Strike ‘Want to Continue Resisting’
Last week, 27 immigrant women detained at the for-profit T. Don Hutto facility in Austin began refusing meals, demanding an end to mistreatment and their immediate release. Most are asylum seekers from Central America, which has seen a surge in migrants fleeing violence and abuse. The detainees said they’ve faced threats and unjustified surveillance as they languish in custody without hope of freedom. Immigration officials have denied the hunger strike is even taking place. While exact figures are unknown, advocates say the hunger strike grew this week substantially, possibly into the hundreds. Hutto is run by the country’s largest private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America. The hunger strike is the latest by immigrant detainees around the country, following three others in the past month. "Women are fleeing Central America and Mexico because they are in danger," says Cristina Parker, immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. "We respond by putting them in a prison for profit that cuts corners, that serves bad food, that neglects people’s medical care and needs. This is the system that these women are exposing, and they’re doing so, so bravely." Read more about Locked Up & Neglected After Fleeing Danger, Immigrant Women Detainees Launch Hunger Strike in Texas
One striker's daughter says staff retaliated against her mom by transferring her to solitary confinement in an all-male facility.
She had had enough.
Two weeks ago, nearly seven months into her stay at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, northeast of Austin, Francisca Morales Macias went on a hunger strike. Morales Macias, fleeing an abusive partner in Mexico, was detained at the all-female immigration detention center in April and decided to protest after she was repeatedly served rotten milk and undercooked, and even uncooked, food.
Monica Morales, her 27-year-old daughter, told the Observer that her mother was also experiencing mistreatment by guards inside the center.
“All she did was try to save her life and try to come back to her family” in Texas, said Morales, who lives in Amarillo. Women detained at Hutto, she said, “aren’t animals, they’re human beings.”
By last Wednesday — nine days ago — 26 more women had reportedly joined Morales Macias, refusing dinner and vowing indefinitely not to eat until they are released from the detention facility. Many women, including Morales Macias, have fled violence and persecution in their home countries, including Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, and are seeking asylum in the United States. Read more about Hutto Hunger Strike Reportedly Growing Despite ICE Denials
On October 28, 27 women being held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center began a hunger strike with a single demand: immediate release from an immigration detention center that they say neglects them and their rights. Fourteen days later, local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership reports that the growing group of women is still refusing to eat and is now facing retaliatory measures.
We spoke to Christina Parker, Grassroots Leadership’s immigration program director, for an update:
How many women do you estimate are currently on hunger strike at Hutto?
Parker: The hunger strike has moved into a new phase of rolling strikes. The original strike started almost two weeks ago and women have a biological need to begin eating again. So now, women will fast one section (each section is about 40 to 50 women) for a few days, and then stop and another section will begin. Twenty-seven women started the strike, and over the course of the last week, we confirmed that three sections were on strike at the height of the protest. So that’s at least 125 women, with 40 to 50 striking at any given time.
How are they sustaining themselves?
During the initial strike, women only took in water or sugar water. During the rolling strikes, they'll use time to rest while another section strikes to sustain themselves. In addition being a way to sustain themselves, they told us they are employing this system this to try to hide from ICE who is and isn’t eating. ICE has been taking inventory of who is eating and who isn’t and intimidating women they believe are not eating. The rolling hunger strike is a way for them to continue to resist, but be less easy to target for retaliation, which is brilliant and shows how committed they are.
How many of the striking women have reportedly been moved to other facilities?
We know of two women [Francisca Morales Macias and Amalia Arteaga Leal] who have been moved to the detention center in Pearsall, a historically all-men’s facility that is notorious for its conditions. Apparently, there is a small women’s wing. We know of at least four others moved to the Laredo detention center on the border, which is also known for bad conditions. According to a rushed phone call from inside the night they were moved (late Thursday, early Friday), as many as 12 may have been taken to Laredo and perhaps half of them had been participating in the strike.
How many have been moved into solitary confinement?
Two women have faced solitary confinement that we know of. Insis [Maribel Zelaya Bernardez] was placed in solitary at Hutto the first weekend of the hunger strike. This was confirmed by her attorney and friend who went and demanded to see her and a letter she wrote about the experience. Francisca, who was moved to Pearsall, has been in solitary since she arrived. We and her family are extremely concerned about her well-being and want her released to pursue to case outside of detention as soon as possible. It is worth explaining here that ICE will say they do not have any solitary confinement cells in immigrant detention. But what they leave out is that they do have single cells in the medical units and this is where they will lock women up, under the pretext of medical care. But it is obvious to the women that it is a punishment, especially since they have reported that don’t see anyone while they’re in there, including any doctors or nurses. This was what we saw in the reports of solitary used against mothers and children during the Karnes hunger strikes. Read more about UPDATE: 100+ Women Now Refusing to Eat in Texas Immigration Detention Center
Close to 100 women being held in a detention center for immigrants in Hutto, Texas, have joined a hunger strike asking for their release and better living conditions, especially in regard to medical attention.
Twenty-seven women had started the strike on Oct. 28.
Cristina Parker of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that advocates for the release of detained immigrants, told EFE that the women – mostly from Mexico and Central America – are being held in detention centers while their asylum claims are being looked at. They could be deported if their cases are rejected. Read more about Nearly 100 women held in Texas immigration detention center on hunger strike
As a hunger strike inside the Hutto immigrant detention center in Taylor, Texas spreads throughout the facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are ramping up retaliation and abuse against women participating in the protest. Read more about This is what you can do: Demand release of women targeted for retaliation in #Hutto27 hunger strike