Call to Close “Deplorable” Private Detention Center for Immigrants Made, as Expansion Planned

2014.9.23.Bernd.MainICE detention facility in Karnes County, Texas. (Photo: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement / Department of Homeland Security)

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Immigrant justice groups and human rights groups are demanding the Obama administration close a recently converted immigrant detention center in Karnes, Texas. The center incarcerates 530 children and families and is owned and operated by the private prison corporation GEO Group.

The call to close the Karnes detention center comes as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials recently confirmed plans to build a new immigrant-family detention center in Dilley, Texas, that is expected to hold 2,400 refugees arriving from Central America.

The Karnes County Civil Detention Center, about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, was converted this summer into a private immigrant detention center holding children and families fleeing poverty and violence from Central American countries. The jail is part of an expansion of immigrant family detention centers across the state, facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to the refugee influx. The detention center was originally opened in 2012 to detain adult men.

After visiting the center Tuesday, staffers from the Texas-based human rights groups described the conditions at the jail as “deplorable,” and they relayed messages from refugees detained inside who told the groups that many children are losing weight and that detainees have been threatened with family separation if they don’t sign certain immigration documents, including voluntary deportation forms.

“No matter what the dressing of the family detention centers that are constructed, there simply is no way to do family detention the ‘right way,’ and we’re prepared to litigate if we have to,” said Adriana Piñon, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas during a press call.

Piñon described speaking with refugee mothers detained at the jail who told her they had been separated from their children, despite having space enough for the children to be with them in their living quarters. She also said she spoke with many detainees who did not have adequate access to legal counsel, or who had valid asylum claims but were not being provided with sufficient information about the process for pursuing them. Many described their interviews with asylum officers as rushed.

As of this month, only four families have been released from the detention center, some with impending court dates to determine their asylum cases. One of those families included a small child suffering from a life-threatening brain tumor that went untreated while she and her mother were detained at the center, according to Andrea Guttin, an associate attorney with Human Rights First, who toured the jail Tuesday, September 16.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee office in Washington, DC, more than 60 percent of the children and families fleeing violence in Central American countries have legitimate claims to asylum and international protections.

Indigenous detainees told the advocates that they were given asylum interviews in Spanish, even though they informed detention officials that Spanish is not their first language.

“While families are suffering this mass-family detention policy, it has become very good for business for private prison corporations like the GEO Group,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which works to end for-profit incarceration.

Libal said the company’s expected annual revenue for the Karnes detention center jumped from around $15 million to $26 million after the company converted the center to detain children and families.

The Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group is the second-largest private prison corporation in the United States. The company has come under fire in the past for its conditions and practices, which have sparked lawsuits and hunger strikes at its detention centers and have resulted in the company having at least one of its contracts canceled at the Coke County juvenile detention facility, after a surprise visit from Texas state officials.

The officials found that the children incarcerated at the detention center were subject to abuse and neglect, and were held in conditions that were hazardous to their health.

The planned detention center at Dilley is being called the South Texas Family Detention Center, and is slated to be built at Sendero Ranch, a “man camp” for oil-and-gas workers, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. ICE officials expect the center will open in November. Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm, has been negotiating with ICE and Correction Corporation of America (CCA) in what city officials say is a deal being quietly settled without public bids.

The plans for the Dilley detention center, as well as a similar converted detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, that would hold 650 children and families, have sparked a similar outcry from human rights groups who want federal officials to pursue alternative options to family detention, such as case management and community support for refugees.

“President Obama’s fixation on using family incarceration as a means to navigate his way out of our immigration crisis must end. These are families, women and children, and what we need is the president to use his executive authority to grant relief,” said Silky Shah, codirector of the Detention Watch Network, in a press release.

President Obama announced earlier this month that he will delay executive action on immigration reform until after midterm elections this November, angering immigrant-rights organizations and leaving those who are locked up – as well as millions of other undocumented immigrants – in limbo.

The plans for the construction of the new jail come nearly five years after some of the very same Texas-based rights groups challenged severe human rights abuses and successfully ended the detention of immigrant families at the infamous T. Don Hutto Residential Center, 35 miles outside Austin, in 2009.

The Hutto center, which now holds only adult women, is run by the nation’s largest private prison corporation, CCA – which is now negotiating with ICE officials to operate the new detention center planned at Dilley.

On Monday, September 15, a Travis County District Court ruled CCA is a “governmental body” subject to the Texas Public Information Act to disclose public information about its activities and operations. Texas now joins Tennessee, Florida and Vermont in holding that a private prison company is required to comply with the state public records laws.

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by the publication Prison Legal News (PLN), after the company refused to disclose internal records related to the now-closed Dawson State Jail.

“Consistently, the very worst conditions in any [detention] facilities are facilities that are run by private entities like Corrections Corporation of America, and there’s more than one reason for that, but one of the fundamental reasons is that they have been historically allowed to operated in a nontransparent way,” said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who represented PLN in the case.

The precedent leaves other private prison corporations, such as the GEO Group, vulnerable to the same determination that it is a “governmental body” for purposes of the Texas Public Information Act.