(AUSTIN, Texas) — On the second anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death in a Waller County Jail, Austin criminal justice and immigrant rights groups and formerly incarcerated Austinites are reacting to a new report from Grassroots Leadership that shows dramatic racial disparities in the Travis County Jail. Advocates are calling on local officials to act to reduce incarceration rates and racial disparities in the jail. Read more about New report points to racism and longer confinement of African Americans in Travis County Jail
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Drunken driving. Property theft. Possession of a controlled substance.
These are some of the crimes for which the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did not honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspected undocumented immigrants past their sentences or dispositions.
Records obtained by KUT News show that while Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy regarding ICE detainers is largely being applied as laid out, in a couple of cases it was applied inconsistently, specifically when it concerned reoffenders.
On February 1, Hernandez’s policy went into effect: She would honor ICE detainer requests only if someone had been charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking, or had been convicted of these crimes in the past. She also maintained the ability to assess requests on a case-by-case basis. Later, the sheriff expanded her policy to include crimes committed against children and the elderly.
In a second case, an 18-year-old man was accused of organized criminal activity. Travis County declined the ICE detainer request placed on him, and he was released from jail on a personal recognizance bond, or no-cost bond.
A month later, in April, he was again booked into the Travis County Jail, this time on a home burglary charge. Travis County honored a second ICE detainer request placed on the man and he was released to federal immigration agents. Dark said the man’s escalating criminal activity might explain the decision to turn him over to ICE – but when she spoke with KUT she did not have the notes in front of her from the captain who made the decision.
Bob Libal, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Grassroots Leadership, said he’s concerned by these inconsistencies.
“I do think that it raises concerns if the policy is not being followed,” he said.
“It’s really disappointing to hear,” said Amy Fischer, policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, when told about the few inconsistencies in the application of Hernandez’s policy. “She’s gained a lot of political brownie points as someone who’s claiming to stand up for the immigrant community, and it shows that when push comes to shove that she’s laying down to the federal government.”
While Hernandez’s policy states that she maintains the right to assess ICE detainers on a case-by-case basis, most of the charges for which people were released to ICE fell below the threshold Hernandez set in her policy. They included charges of DUI, home burglary, domestic violence, manufacture and delivery of a drug, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual abuse of a child.
An oft-overlooked portion of Hernandez’s policy is the consideration of criminal history. In the case that someone committed one of the three violent felonies she set – murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking – the ICE detainer placed on them would be honored.
Libal with Grassroots Leadership and Fischer with RAICES said they were concerned from the beginning to learn that Hernandez’s policy included the intent to honor any ICE detainers.
“Obviously, it’s good news that we have a dramatic reduction in the number of immigration detainers in our community,” Libal said. “But it doesn’t solve many of the issues that were raised by (detainers), including constitutional issues. It doesn’t matter what the criminal charge is. The sheriff is agreeing to honor a detainer that does not come with any backing of a warrant.” Read more about Here's what we learned about requests from ICE to pick up Travis County inmates
Lauren Johnson of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit dedicated to prison reform, was on hand Tuesday to urge the commissioners to adopt the first option. She noted that the second option also contained the built-in ability to keep the current rates in case the FCC order is challenged in court.
“I think that we need to be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because our hand is being forced,” Johnson said.
Daugherty expressed sympathy for Johnson and her cause but had reservations about simply walking away from $860,000 in revenue. “I’m not trying to be punitive to the inmates,” Daugherty said. “But I do want to be careful about just assuming that this money is not something that our Sheriff’s Office needs, because we know what their needs are going to be. And if you don’t have some kind of revenue, then it just is all on the taxpayer, and I don’t think that’s completely fair.”
Johnson stood her ground and argued that the county relies too much on incarceration. “So if we really were concerned about our tax dollars, we could be spending them on more diversion programs. Travis County leads the way in a lot of areas, but there are other things we could be doing besides locking people up and being entirely punitive,” she said.
At Litchfield, Piper and the women with whom she is incarcerated receive many visitors throughout the Orange is the New Black (OITNB) series. Some people visit with friends and family, including their children, and others receive visits from charitable organizations, pen pals, and sometimes even strangers. What’s common about all of the visits portrayed in the show are that they happen in a room where the women and their visitors sit across from one another at tables with nothing in between them. In prison policy speak this is referred to as “a contact visit.” Although the degree of permissible contact is limited, which we see as Litchfield’s correctional officers intervene when (in their judgement) a boundary has been crossed, the women and their visitors experience an interaction on par with that of two people sitting across a kitchen table.   Read more about OITNB visitation room vs. reality: #PrisonSkype;
Prison phone service companies like Dallas-based Securus Technologies, Inc. have found a new way to profit from their captive audience: video visitation systems. In the last two years, at least 25 county jails in Texas have installed video terminals that allow inmates to chat with friends, family and others on the outside. Like the phone systems, the cost of using the service is steep: up to $1 per minute for a Skype-like chat, not including usage fees and taxes. But the real kicker is that in many cases the video systems are replacing in-person visits.
Grassroots Leadership has been trying to get in-person visitations restored at the Travis County Jail for almost two years. The group was alerted to the situation there after the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against Securus and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly unlawfully recording the video chats. Another lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Derrick Matthew Rice, a 29-year-old inmate at the Denton County Jail, against Securus, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The suit claims that eliminating in-person visits is a violation of what’s already stipulated in jail standards. Read more about Lawmakers Could Slow Spread of Video-Only Jail Visitations
Earlier this month, we shared our petition to stop eavesdropping on prisoners at the Travis County Jail, where in-person visits have been replaced by a for-profit video conferencing service.
Now, Jazmine Ulloa with the Austin-American Statesman has published the story, "Are there privacy flaws in inmate call systems?", sounding the alarm on phone calls between prisoners and their lawyers being unlawfully recorded at the Travis County Jail and Securus, the private company that's cashing in on it. Our friends at Texas Civil Rights Project and the Prison Justice League have filed suit.Read more about Take action: Pressure mounts at Travis County Jail to stop "unconstitutional eavesdropping"
On Thursday, June 26, Austin city council members unanimously passed a resolution to oppose Travis County's participation in Secure Communities. Secure Communities, or S-Comm, is a federal program through which immigrants can be detained in local jails like the Travis County Jail until Immigration and Customs Encorcement (ICE) can take them into custody. The resolution is sponsored by council members Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez and mayor pro-tem Sheryl Cole. No one offered opposing remarks on this resolution.