(AUSTIN, Texas) — As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigates its use of private prisons, women currently and formerly detained in two CCA-operated immigrant detention centers in Texas and their families are speaking out against abuses in the facilities. In these letters received by Grassroots Leadership in mid-September, women denounce abusive conditions at the Laredo Processing Center. These conditions mirror those in for-profit, private prisons that led the Department of Justice (DOJ) to announce that they would phase out the use of these prisons in the federal Bureau of Prisons over the next five years.
Eleven women signed an August 9th letter (English translation here) to Grassroots Leadership reporting an inability to access their legal documents and communicate with their attorneys, as well as many of the same conditions named in the recent letters.
In that letter they wrote, “Just like you want to support us, we too are willing to support ourselves and will not stay quiet about the abuse of our rights that we have been victims of.”
The women speaking had been suddenly transferred from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas to the Laredo Processing Center at the end of June, away from their legal counsel and community support.
One woman, Elena*, described the sudden transfer.
“When they notified us that they were going to transfer us to another detention center it was a Friday at 11pm,” she said. “They woke us up at that time so that we could sign [paperwork].”
More abuses immediately followed this transfer:
“The first night that we arrived [at Laredo], they put us in a very cold room all night without anything to cover us,” said Ramira*. “That same week we got sick with colds in our throat and chest.”
“There were two days that they didn’t let us go to the bathroom. My companions and I complained and asked if we could please use the bathroom because we couldn’t stand the urge to go to the bathroom anymore, so much that there were some of us that got sick from holding the urge to go to the bathroom for so long, that they even got infections, and they didn’t pay any attention to us,” said Camila*. “What they did was shout at us a lot as if we were causing some harm by telling them what was happening. I think it’s unjust and it’s not right that they treat us like this.”
These abuses appear to be general operating practice at Laredo. Women detained inside the detention center, communicating by letter and through their attorneys, continue to report damaged and unsanitary facilities, aggressive guards and medical staff, grossly inadequate medical care including the complete lack of a doctor on staff, interference with phone conversations including communication with attorneys, food that causes diarrhea and vomiting, and even guards carrying firearms.
“Since the transfer from Hutto we have been in a constant state of stress that appears to never end. We have learned not to sleep, because the constant counts don’t allow it, the dormitory floods with drainage water at any moment. I have observed how this wears down my companions physically and emotionally,” said Mabel*. “They’ve tried to give a hemorrhage to one african woman, another with problems of nasal hemorrhaging, and many others with acts of racism and cruelty.”
Women detained inside report conditions unfit for anyone, but particularly for women who are fleeing violence.
“They [the guards] shout at us so loudly that sometimes I feel like I’m going to faint because I feel my body go very weak. It would seem as if we had done them some kind of harm and because of that they behave in such an ugly way with us. It’s not fair because we are not criminals and we are only looking for refuge,” said Nora*. “And it is so painful for me because I come from domestic violence and I have endured blows and shouts from my ex-partner and because of this they make me remember and I feel like I am in those past moments. It brings me so much sadness that I came here to remember.”
“When we go out for recreation they watch over us with shotguns in their hands as if we were criminals, something else that I don’t see as necessary, since because of the physical damages that I already have in my body from firearms and the psychological impact of that, they make me feel afraid,” said Doralia*. “Many times I prefer not to go outside because this traumatizes me more. I beg you that you help me please, it’s been 6 months that I’ve been in my process [of my asylum case] and I ask that you check on the conditions that Laredo Processing Center has us in, as they’re not appropriate for people like me who fled from violence, mistreatment.”
“Here in this detention center where we are, Laredo Processing Center, everyday is bad, they never offer you a greeting, a smile, something that is so essential for your day to start off well. They offer everything grudgingly, a lot of the time the food makes you sick because it is not well cooked or it’s raw,” said Mabel*. “You feel afraid to get sick, knowing that there is no guarantee that you will get better. Health is so important, and here it’s not important to them, such that many times you feel that you really aren’t worth anything, even more for a woman like me who has been raped, tortured, humiliated.”
These complaints echo those made at the T. Don Hutto detention center last October when 27 women initiated a hunger strike denouncing their prolonged detention, as well as inadequate medical care, bad food, and demeaning treatment by guards.
The Hutto detention center was also previously the subject of a lawsuit for holding families under inhumane conditions, and has previously come under fire for a guard sexually abusing detained women while transporting them to the airport to be deported.
Sometimes this abuse within private immigrant detention centers can be fatal. According to Detention Watch Network, since 2003, 164 people have died in immigrant detention, including ten deaths in ICE custody this Fiscal Year. At the GEO-operated South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, whose contract is up for renewal in November, two detained immigrants have died from preventable causes.
Despite these high profile local abuses, Austin Police Chief, Art Acevedo, who sits on the DHS advisory committee that is investigating the department’s use of private prisons, told Univision in September that he does not have any evidence of abuse in private prisons. Texans United for Families, an Austin-based community group, launched a campaign, #Evidence4Acevedo, requesting that the Austin Police Chief use his position on the Homeland Security Advisory Committee to publicly demand that DHS follow in the footsteps of the DOJ and end their use for for-profit facilities.
“Austinites who have experienced and witnessed abuses in private immigrant prisons are asking Police Chief Acevedo to protect our community from these abuses,” said Texans United For Families member Travis Cariaga. “We are calling on him to join us in advocating for the end of DHS for-profit immigrant prisons.”
*All names of detained women changed to protect identity.
Bethany Carson, firstname.lastname@example.org, 512-499-8111