(CONROE, Texas) — Montgomery County residents rallied yesterday outside the County Commissioners building against the new 1,000-bed detention center being built right next to the existing Joe Corley Detention Center and Montgomery County Mental Health Facility. The White Construction Company has already broken ground on the new facility, called the Montgomery ICE Processing Center according to a sign at the construction site. Read more about Montgomery County residents protest massive new for-profit immigrant detention camp: Construction begins on first new detention camp under Trump administration
This week, Texas lawmakers advanced a bill crafted by for-profit prison interests that would license lockups for asylum-seeking immigrant families as child care providers.
Senate Bill 1018, which would lower state standards for two South Texas immigrant detention centers so they can qualify as Texas-approved "family residential centers," passed its first hurdle in the Texas Senate on Tuesday with a 20-11 vote along party lines. Immigrant rights advocates opposed to it say it's just the state's latest attempt to help keep the family lockups open as federal court orders threaten to shutter them. Democratic lawmakers fighting the bill say it would license "baby jails."
The feds' last foray into family detention was at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention center in central Texas that was run by CCA. There, immigration lawyers and human rights activists complained of children dressed in prison-like jumpsuits and kept in small cells for 14 hours a day. A legal challenge by the ACLU ultimately forced the feds to pull children out of Hutto in 2009, citing a longstanding legal settlement that was supposed to bar the feds from ever again holding immigrant kids in a prison-like environment.
Which is why lawyers challenged the practice of holding kids at Dilley and Karnes, sometimes for months. A year after they opened, a federal judge in California delivered a pair of court rulings that unambiguously condemned the practice of child detention, writing that the government hadn't provided "any competent evidence" to support its argument for jailing asylum-seeking families as a default measure. As part of her ruling, the judge said the feds couldn’t hold kids in facilities that aren’t licensed to house or care for children.
Advocacy groups like Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which has criticized the conditions immigrants are housed in at Dilley and Karnes, thought the courts were on the verge of forcing an end to family detention. After all, when dealing with complaints over facilities like Hutto, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services had previously insisted it had no oversight role over private prison-run immigrant detention centers that house children in Texas and couldn't license them or hold them to a higher standard.
Grassroots had to sue to force Texas child welfare officials to even hold apublic hearing on the matter, which did not go particularly well for the agency. Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp condemned the practice of family detention and insisted state licensing would only enable a practice that's destructive to healthy child development. Mothers spoke of being separated from their children for extended periods of time and inadequate medical care. Mental health experts who'd visited the facilities spoke of children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in lockup. Social workers claimed they'd been reprimanded by private prison staff for trying to help suffering mothers or children navigate the facility's grievance process.
Then last December, a Travis County judge blocked DFPS from licensing the child lockups, ruling that the state can't arbitrarily lower its standards in order to cover a couple of private prison facilities.
So lobbyists with the GEO Group, which operates the Karnes detention center, decided to try another route. As the Associated Press reported last month, the company helped draft the proposal now snaking through the Texas Legislature that would give DFPS the authority to license the detention centers. Its supporters argue it's a way to ensure families aren't separated in detention; Democrats arguing against the measure in the Senate Tuesday called it a "vendor bill."
If the bill passes a third reading in the Senate, it moves on to the state House. Still, it's unclear whether lawmakers will have enough time to send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk before the fast-approaching end of the session on May 29.
But to Grassroots executive director Bob Libal, whose group sued the state over the licensing issue, the episode constitutes just another state attempt to help private prison corporations keep alive the controversial practice of family detention.
"The push to license the family jails has never been about protecting children, but about protecting the profits of private prison companies," Libal said in a prepared statement last month. "The state should stand up to these interests and for the rights of children and reject these unjust bills." Read more about Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?
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.”
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.
Despite opposition from advocates, formerly detained families and Democratic lawmakers, the bill will now move to the full Senate. Read more about Bill to License 'Baby Jails' as Child Care Facilities Clears First Legislative Hurdle
A private-prison company that has for years been in the crosshairs of immigrant rights groups announced Thursday it will build a $110 million detention complex in the Houston metro area.
The Florida-based GEO Group said in a news release its new facility will be built in the city of Conroe as part of a 10-year, renewable contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The detention center will be finished toward the end of 2018, the company said. The Associated Press first reported the story.
Immigrant advocacy groups said the move signals the beginning of President Trump’s efforts to expand detentions and begin fast-tracking the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. Part of the president's Jan. 25 executive order on immigration instructed the Department of Homeland Security to increase bed space for undocumented immigrants subject to removal.
“We’re not surprised, but we are deeply disappointed that the administration is not only lining the pockets of the private-prison industry but expanding detention,” said Bob Libal, the executive director for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights and private-prison watchdog group.
The new facility will add to the GEO Group’s heavy presence in Texas. The company’s website lists more than a dozen facilities it operates in the state. They range from smaller local jails used mainly by the U.S. Marshals Service to larger immigration-detention complexes near the border.
GEO Group was involved in a lengthy legal battle last year after Grassroots Leadership filed a lawsuit to prevent the company’s Karnes City facility from being licensed as a child-care facility by state officials. The center houses hundreds of women and children that were part of the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America who began arriving to Texas in record numbers four years ago.
The child-care facility licensing has been necessary since 2015, when U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere should be released because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — that requires undocumented juveniles be held in facilities that protect their health and safety.
A state district judge denied the state the ability to issue the licenses, but the facility continues to operate as a temporary processing center, Libal said. Read more about Trump greenlights a new immigrant-detention center in Texas
In a February 22 call with investors, the private prison corporation GEO Group openly boasted that the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants is boosting its bottom line and fueling its expansion.
One of the largest private prison companies in the world, GEO Group, stands accused of widespread human rights violations, including charges that the company forced tens of thousands of immigrants in ICE detention at the Aurora, Colorado Denver Contract Detention Facility to perform slave labor. GEO Group’s Karnes family detention center in Texas, where mothers are incarcerated with their children, has been the site of repeated hunger strikes over poor conditions and indefinite detention.
Speaking with investors (transcript is available here), David Donahue, the President of GEO Corrections and Detention, directly cited the Trump administration’s “deportation force” as a boon to business.
Speaking with investors, chairman and chief executive officer George Zoley gloated, “We’re very pleased with our strong fourth quarter and year end results and our outlook for 2017," adding: “It is gratifying to see GEO’s continued financial success.”
Zoley went on to directly cite Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders as a boon to business, proclaiming:
With respect to detention services, in support of border security, we would continue to be the largest provider of detention services to the three federal agencies — that is to ICE, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. With this increased and expanded approach to border security, the first agency that will need additional capacity is ICE. Border Patrol will catch individuals and then send them to an ICE facility. Subsequently, there will be a need by the U.S. Marshals Service for those people that have committed criminal acts and need to be detained for adjudication. And further on down the line, BOP will need additional capacity as well for those people who’ve been sentenced and need to serve their time in one of the CAR facilities.
So it’s really an escalation of capacity need for all three federal agencies as a result of the president’s new executive orders redirecting the approach to border security for the three federal agencies.
The advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership blasted the company for profiting from Trump’s plans to implement mass deportations. "While immigrant communities are being terrorized by raids, the private prison industry is quietly celebrating a potential boom in business,” said Bob Libal, the executive director of the organization. “Prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America are preparing for an enormous expansion to detention under this administration. Mass deportations should make our country ashamed, not make private prison executives rich." Read more about Private Prison Execs Are Gloating Over Soaring Profits from Trump's Mass Deportation Agenda
Private prison companies just hit the jackpot.
While attention was focused Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s orders to start building the border wall and cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, another aspect of his decree went mostly overlooked: Trump effectively gave the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to expand immigrant detention.
His executive order authorizes the department to “allocate all legally available resources” to “establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” That means paying private prison companies like CoreCivic and the GEO Group to open new facilities to keep up with the Trump administration’s draconian “enforcement priorities” on immigration.
“It’s worse than we even imagined,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes private prisons. “It’s the policy manifestation of all the ugly bigotry that Trump spewed on the campaign trail.”
The Trump administration’s enforcement priorities, also outlined in Wednesday’s executive order, will likely ensnare hundreds of thousands of people, including asylum seekers who present themselves at the border, undocumented immigrants who have merely been accused of crimes but not found guilty, and others convicted of petty offenses like driving without a license. All of those people could end up being locked up indefinitely — and the current detention facilities are already at capacity.
A group of lawmakers, including Texas’ senators, have asked the Bureau of Prisons to put the brakes on a contract for 3,600 beds in private detention facilities that could result in closures of prisons in Texas.
They’re asking the Obama administration to hold off on granting the contract, which at one time was slated for more than 10,000 beds in seven states, including Texas. That number was reduced drastically this year after the Justice Department announced it would begin phasing out its use of private prison operators.
The contract, which could be shared by several companies, would have been a renewal of existing agreements to operate prisons for the bureau. The reduced contract could result in the closure of some facilities.
The letter was hailed by private prison company GEO Group, which employs about 1,500 people in Texas through BOP contracts, but was criticized by an Austin-based advocacy group as the latest effort to delay the contract until President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Bob Libal, the executive director of the Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, which has opposed private prisons, said the company is likely to lose its challenge. He wondered if the letter and the protest by GEO are part of a “stalling technique” in hopes that a Trump administration will award larger contracts. The Justice Department’s decision to phase out private prisons was based not just on the problems identified but a declining inmate population, Libal said.
“They’re trying to thwart the common-sense move that, if you don’t need prison beds, you don’t sign contracts with substandard prisons to continue to operate them,” he said. Read more about Texas senators to Bureau of Prisons: Delay contract with private operators
Family detention facilities are not childcare centers. That was the decision handed down on Friday by State District Judge Karin Crump in a case brought by an anti-private prison group against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, as well as two private prison giants: GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly, the Corrections Corporation of America).
The lawsuit by Grassroots Leadership sought to deny childcare licenses to GEO’s Karnes Family Residential Center and CoreCivic’s South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. Both Karnes and Dilley had sought the licenses after a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in July, 2015, that holding asylum-seeking women and their children in detention centers violated a 1997 ruling that required federal authorities to detain children in the least restrictive settings possible.
The Dilley facility had never been granted a license; a third family detention center in Pennsylvania was granted a childcare license that has since been revoked. The Crump ruling invalidates the Karnes license.
Immediately following the ruling, 460 women and children from Karnes and Dilley were released and sent by bus to the RAICES center in San Antonio. A press release from ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security which contracts out the family detention centers, said that the release was a normal part of operations and not done as a result of Crump’s ruling.
“They can say what they want, but nobody knew about the release ahead of time,” said Dr. Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the people who testified in the case for Grassroots Leadership. “They just put these people on busses and sent them out to RAICES with no real warning.”
Unfortunately, despite the release of that many asylum seekers over the weekend, the Dilley facility is still holding 1,787 women and children, Karnes is still holding 606, and the Berks facility in Pennsylvania, a very small facility that holds a maximum of 100, is still holding 86, according to ICE spokesman Carl Rosnok.
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, acknowledged that while the Crump ruling makes it clear that the family detention centers are operating illegally, “this will not close down these facilities immediately, but it is a victory for all of us who have been saying that adult prisons are not childcare facilities. And the ruling reiterates that these places are not only immoral, but they’re illegal as well.”
Libal believes that “when you meet these folks, you instantly realize these are not national security threats. These are moms and kids fleeing horrible violence, and we throw them into detention, sometimes for months, and then still try to deport them. Back to what? More horrible violence? If anything, this decision should be an indication that President Obama should end these family detention centers once and for all.” Read more about No Family Left Behind
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) subcommittee has decided that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should continue contracting with private prison companies, which have come under fire for their incidents of preventable deaths and allegations that detainees are abused and mistreated.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson tasked the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) with creating a subcommittee to review ICE’s use of private prison companies like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, whichrecently rebranded as CoreCivic. Opponents of private prison companies have pointed to allegations of human rights abuses, including incidents of sexual abuse, as a primary reason for the closure of facilities operated by the GEO Group and CoreCivic.
HSAC released the report on December 1 after conducting interviews with detention experts, executives from the major private detention companies, and representatives from national and local immigration advocacy groups, according to the report. Members of the subcommittee also visited two ICE detention facilities, one owned and operated by ICE and the other owned and operated by a private for-profit prison company.
A fear among advocates—including Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based immigrant rights’ organization Grassroots Leadership—is that ICE will not be held accountable for the growing number of deaths at for-profit prisons. In Raquel Calderon de Hildago’s case, she was being held at CoreCivic-run Eloy Detention Center, which is considered by migrants as one of the worst places to be detained, when she had a series of seizures. She was transferred by paramedics to a nearby hospital, where she died on November 27 at the age of 36. As the Arizona Republic reported, “At the time of her death, she was awaiting deportation to Guatemala, ICE officials said. ICE said database checks indicate she had no criminal history in the U.S.”
Libal told Rewire in a phone interview that he was “heartened” by HSAC rejecting the report’s core recommendation at the hearing this week.
Libal said that while it’s “somewhat heartening” that the committee dissented, it’s important to get to the heart of the “real issue”: The reason ICE can’t extract itself from contracts with companies like CoreCivic and GEO is because there are too many people in detention—and more expected in the coming months. Any plans for mass deportation, as the president-elect has proposed, require an immediate increase in detention, as migrants awaiting their deportations are placed into detention centers for weeks and sometimes even years. This is an issue that rests squarely on the shoulders of both ICE and the Obama administration, Libal said.
“My hope, and I think a hope of a lot of advocates, was that the report would recommend that ICE reduce the number of people detained, but the report made no such recommendation,” the executive director said.
Moving forward, there are a lot of unknowns about the detention system and how it will continue to take shape. This week, the U.S. government argued at the U.S. Supreme Court that certain migrants in detention shouldn’t qualify for bond hearings after being detained for at least six months. The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy organizations are pushing back against these policies, arguing that all migrants in detention deserve legal protections and due process. Libal said it is this kind of pushback that will be needed more than ever as we enter a new administration intent on further criminalizing and targeting migrants for prolonged detention and deportation.
“We are preparing for what could be one of the darkest times in our nation’s history,” Libal said. “We are handing over the keys to a human rights violation machine to Donald Trump’s immigration force—and that is the fault of this administration. The level of detention dictated why [the subcommittee] felt so beholden to private prison interests. If we had a quarter of people in immigration detention that we do, this would be a much easier problem to solve. And the fact that ICE continues to promote reliance on detention over release from detention or community-supported alternatives is the other reason we have this huge problem.” Read more about Department of Homeland Security Will Continue Contracting With Private Prison Companies
Separately, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US has activists worried that the steps taken by the Obama administration to reduce the population of inmates in private prisons will be quickly rolled back. Trump has said outright that he supports prison privatization, and his plans for cracking down on illegal immigration would be a boon for prison operators: the stock prices of CCA and the Geo Group soared following his election.
“We are actually anticipating that the DOJ decision be quite possibly overturned. Either formally or they would be renewals or re-granting of the full contracts,” said Bethany Carson at Grassroots Leadership, a prison advocacy organization.
What has Carson and her group particularly worried is the president-elect’s promise to introduce mandatory minimums for illegal re-entry convictions after a previous deportation. Illegal entry and re-entry convictions already make up nearly half of federal prosecutions. The convicts are mostly held in thirteen so-called “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons, run by private companies, largely CoreCivic and GEO. Both facilities with which the BOP extended its contracts are CAR prisons.
Carson said that mandatory minimums would send average sentences for re-entry “through the roof,” and would require expanding the private prisons the DOJ said it would close in August.
“Expanding this existing system that federally prosecutes immigrants just for crossing the border to reunite with their families or flee dangerous situations could be one way to quite literally manufacture the so-called criminals he wants to deport,” said Carson. Read more about The US government is already quietly backing out of its promise to phase out private prisons