On Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement welcomed the media to the adult-prison-turned-immigrant-family-detention center, the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Central Texas. It was an attempt to dispel the concentration-camp rumors about the Corrections Corporation of America facility circulating in the press and in a recent House Concurrent Resolution introduced by Texas Representative Eddie Rodriguez.
About five years ago, I toured the Florence Correctional Center, a CCA prison housing Hawaiian medium-security inmates in the Arizona desert. The prison was mired in scandal: a Hawaiian state investigation found that prison officials had essentially handed control of the facility to a prison gang, which was employing intimidation and violence to traffic drugs and operate a prostitution ring using female immigration detainees also at the prison.
Structurally speaking, Hutto is simply a smaller version of the Florence Correctional Center. My dèjá vu came with the chill in the air and the echoes off the bare white walls, all marked with CCA’s signature red stripe. I recognized the prison elements in Hutto’s “pods,” the contained areas where two tiers of cells open onto a shared recreation area. At Florence, a square patch of carpet broke up the center of the floor, marking a no-go zone for inmates; stepping in that space would earn you disciplinary measures. At Hutto, the carpet is hidden beneath a row of foam chairs below the ceiling-mounted television. Much like Florence inmates, Hutto detainees’ days are planned to the hour, and they can’t move through the facility unescorted. One difference is the Hawaiian government insisted CCA provide their inmates with culturally specific food, such as rice. On the day of the tour, the Hutto detainees, from 29 different countries, were offered spaghetti or pizza with salad, corn, and green jello. The coming week’s meals include sloppy joes and macaroni and cheese.
CCA has made certain adjustments for families. The guards don’t carry weapons. Instead of locking the cells at night, they monitor the doors with laser sensors. CCA officials claim that infractions aren’t punished with restraint or solitary confinement, but instead dealt with through counseling. They’ve removed the razor wire from the innermost fence. They built a small playground outside. The halls are decorated with plants, the appearance of which, like the special pizza lunch, coincided with the media tour.
But if there’s any doubt that the “residential center” is anything but a prison, all you have to do is read CCA’s “Vision” posted to the lobby wall:
“To be the best full service adult corrections company in the United States.”
At the end of the tour, reporters attempted to get their final questions answered by ICE’s Assistant Director for Detention and Removal Operations, Gary Mead.
“Why was the decision made to contract this facility to a private company?” I asked.
Mead answered, “There was no magic reason. It was because of our relationship with Williamson County, not CCA.”
As I attempted to follow-up, a CCA official cut me off.
“This interview is over,” he said. I turned to Mead, who shrugged. Outside, I asked ICE media coordinator Richard Rocha who was in charge of the tour, CCA or ICE?
“We’re working together,” he said.
CCA is a publicly owned corporation. Their stock bottomed out in 2000, reporting only $5 million in net income in 2002. Federal immigration policy has helped them bounce back; in 2006 they showed a a $26.1 million net income, a 25-percent increase from 2005.
“CCA has a long-standing relationship with ICE and currently has an inventory of several thousand existing prison beds which can be made available to assist ICE in this initiative,” CCA told investors in its 2005 annual report.
One of the chief problems with the Florence Correctional Center was the matter of oversight and accountability. Because the Hawaiian inmates were in Arizona, Hawaiian officials couldn’t keep a close eye on the facility, and Arizona state officials were left in the dark. Pinal County, Arizona, had to sign off on the contract, but they turned a blind eye to the prison’s problems.
This hasn’t been the case in Williamson County, home to the Hutto facility, which is less than a mile from downtown Taylor. Following reports that children in the prison received only an hour of education daily, county commissioners renegotiated the contract in January to stipulate CCA ensure its programs meet state and federal education criteria.
My unanswered follow-up question to Mead was about the relationship between Williamson County and CCA. On the “fact sheet” distributed to the media, ICE boasts that one “highlight” of the facility is a Community Relations Board “comprised of about 25 local citizens, including the bank president, mayor, chamber of commerce president, county and district officials, and representatives of the local media.”
I called Taylor Chamber of Commerce President Shanta Kuhl.
“They have a community-relations board?” she asked.
Further investigation revealed:
Taylor Mayor Benito Gonzales said he has not been invited to sit on the board. He said it may have existed when the facility was an adult prison, but doubted it was still around.
Connie Watson, the public-information officer for Williamson County, said none of the county commissioners sit on the board.
Rick Zinsmeyer, director of adult probation, confirmed that he is on the board, but said he had not attended a meeting in months.
ICE did not respond to queries regarding the board’s composition.
Last year Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the U.S. would end its “catch and release” policy regarding aliens from countries other than Mexico. DHS increased detention funding. According to DHS data, they’re detaining 99 percent of the other-than-Mexico undocumented immigrants they catch, up from 34 percent.
What Chertoff didn’t say is they’d be replacing “catch and release” with a new “catch, charge, and release” policy.
Once a detainee family is placed in the Hutto facility they can apply for asylum. This involves pleading their case to an asylum officer at the Houston office of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the officer decides that a case is credible, detainees can get a hearing with a federal judge in San Antonio. This judge can grant freedom, for a price.
I met immigration lawyer Griselda Ponce in the prison’s lobby. She has served about 100 clients at the Hutto facility, and only about six have been deported or denied asylum. Nearly all her clients at Hutto are asylum seekers, and 80 percent have been released on bond. The average bond, she says, is $7,000, with $1,500 extra per child. Bonds can get as high as $50,000. The judges rarely use the other options, which include electronic monitoring and intensive supervision, Ponce says.
“The problem with ‘catch and release’ was not so much that people were fleeing and never coming back, but they had a very poor process of explaining to these families what they had to do after they were released,” Ponce said. “A lot of families would come into my office, and the client would say, ‘I have this permiso, but I’m wondering if it expired. I want to know how I renew it.’ That was their notice to appear in court. Nobody explained it to them.”
Strict regulation and insurance requirements have discouraged bail-bond firms from issuing immigration bonds, leaving the full financial burden on the shoulders of the immigrants’ family members. For those without funds or family, taxpayers pay CCA $2.92 million a month.
On Monday, ICE press officers called reporters who toured the facility with warnings that they may have been exposed to chicken pox. During a conference call with health officials that afternoon, Mead said an 8-year-old boy had contracted the illness, and until they can determine he is no longer contagious and no new cases have developed, the Hutto facility will not accept any new families. ICE officials insist the boy and his family are not in “quarantine” but are separated from the general population in an “airborne infectious isolation room.”