Mothers Sue Prison Company, ICE for Alleged Retaliation at Karnes Family Detention Center

Three Central American mothers who participated in hunger strikes at the Karnes prison camp in Texas have filed suit in a federal court against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña and staffers with the private prison company running the immigrant-family prison on behalf of dozens of women who went on hunger strike or acted in solidarity with the strikers in two separate protests in April.

Delmy Cruz, Polyane Oliveira and Lilian Rosado argue in a complaint filed last week that they were unjustly retaliated against for protesting their incarceration and the reportedly deplorable conditions inside the Karnes County Residential Center, operated by the private prison company GEO Group.

The three women also filed for an emergency temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction from the court Wednesday morning to prohibit ICE officials and GEO Group staffers from continuing the alleged, ongoing retaliatory acts against the detained mothers.

The three mothers were among the 78 women who initiated a hunger strike the first week of April, but that number dropped to about 45 after ICE officials allegedly threatened some of the hunger-striking mothers with deportation and separation from their children. Advocates said ICE officials told the mothers that because they weren’t taking solid food, they would become mentally unfit to care for their children.

The women also said prison camp guards reportedly isolated three of the women and their children, including Cruz and Oliveira, who were seen as “ringleaders,” in a medical clinic that was kept dark and frigid.

The mothers broke their fast Saturday, April 4, to give ICE officials an opportunity to respond to their demands, and since then at least one family involved in the protests has been released on bond. At least 10 of the mothers renewed the hunger strike April 14, but suspended their protest again April 21.

Advocates for the women told Truthout they had no choice but to suspend the strike because prison camp guards will no longer allow those remaining on hunger strike to work for the meager $3 a day they earn mostly to buy food items for their children from the prison commissary and to make phone calls. Advocates also said prison staffers have recently raised prices at the commissary.

The women’s motion for a temporary restraining order argues that the women feel forced to buy prepackaged food from the prison commissary because their children don’t eat the undercooked food provided from the prison’s dining hall. The motion argues that the combination of lost jobs and raised commissary prices has compromised the women’s protest because each time they enter the dining hall to feed their children, officials use their entrance as evidence to claim there is no hunger strike.

The lawsuit looks to prevent ICE officials and GEO’s corporate staffers from isolating the mothers and their children in retribution for their nonviolent protest, and from threatening to deport and separate the women from their children, which has effectively chilled the women’s dissent.

“There was no reason for all of these actions except for retaliation. There really was no other plausible explanation, and under the First Amendment, the detainees have a right to protest their detention peacefully,” Ranjana Natarajan told Truthout. Natarajan is an attorney with the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic, which filed the suit representing the mothers last week. “All we’re asking is that ICE and GEO not interfere with their right to protest.”

The Karnes prison is part of an expansion of immigrant-family prison camps across South Texas, facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to the Central American migrant influx that reached its peak last summer, as more than 68,541 unaccompanied, undocumented minors crossed the Southwest border last year. Another 68,445 undocumented women traveling with children were counted. Those numbers have slowed considerably since last summer, but record numbers of unaccompanied children and family arrivals continue in 2015.

In an open letter, handwritten in Spanish, the hunger strikers wrote that women and children were still being incarcerated at the Karnes prison camp despite having passed what’s known as a “credible fear” interview, which is a critical, legal step in determining whether their asylum claim is valid. The letter also stated that some of the mothers had been forced to sign voluntary deportation forms.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including recent border crossers, convicted criminals and other public safety threats,” an ICE spokeswoman said in an emailed statement to Truthout.

The spokeswoman said the agency could not comment further on pending litigation. ICE Director Saldaña visited the prison camp in April, after at least 10 of the women incarcerated there had renewed their fast, and determined that the prison “was running smoothly.”

The women’s motion for a temporary restraining order argues that ICE and GEO Group officials confined the hunger-striking women to keep them out of sight during a media tour of the prison camp. Each of the women was told that she had a court appearance and were instructed to report to a room for a videoconference with an immigration judge – but no such conference ever took place. Instead, the motion argues, the women were held in the room until reporters at the prison camp left, and then they were released.

At least one woman was allowed in the prison camp’s outdoor area during the media tour, according to the motion. When she attempted to approach members of the press, she was physically blocked from doing so by three ICE officials, the motion alleges.

In a separate incident, according to the complaint filed last week, a few of the hunger-striking mothers took sheets of paper and wrote out each letter of the word “L-I-B-E-R-T-A-D” (Spanish for “freedom”) on each piece of paper. The women then held up the signs in order while chanting at the prison guards in response to the guards’ efforts to film them.

The next day, the complaint reads, a GEO Group staffer tried to get the sign holders, including Oliveira, to sign a form that said the women had committed “insurrection” due to the fact that they were “waving the ‘L-I-B-E-R-T-A-D’ signs waiting for a helicopter rescue.”

The complaint states the plaintiffs and sign-holding women were not attempting to escape via helicopter. “I have no idea where that [helicopter escape allegation] came from,” Natarajan told Truthout. “When we heard it, we thought it was absurd.”

Truthout obtained a copy of one of the forms signed by a detainee involved in the incident outlining the woman’s “notice of charges” for prohibited act of “insurrection” (code 314). The form states that:

On April 2, 2015, information was received from residents that a group of residents were waiting on a helicopter to come to the facility. It was unclear as to exactly why this helicopter was coming or what the residents plans were.

According to the document, the women began their protest with the signs after they saw a camera was recording them, and that “due to the blatant protesting and the uncertain motive of the helicopter” the women were ordered back into their quarters.

“From where or whom or what would they be expecting a helicopter? … The women were angry because a GEO staff member came out and started videotaping them,” Oliveira’s attorney, Virginia Raymond said in an email. “This would be hilarious if the consequences were not real intimidation and pain.”

A GEO Group spokesman denied any allegations of wrongdoing or substandard conditions at the Karnes prison camp in an emailed statement to Truthout.

“The Karnes County Residential Center provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment, and onsite U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE’s Family Residential Standards. Our company has consistently, strongly denied allegations to the contrary,” the GEO Group spokesman wrote.

On Wednesday, April 29, more than 100 protesters gathered outside GEO Group’s annual shareholder meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, at the Boca Resort and Club. According to a press release from the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), Alex Friedmann, who is HRDC’s associate director and owns shares of GEO Group stock, attended the meeting.

When asked by Friedman about reports of hunger strikes at the Karnes prison camp, a GEO executive responded that there had been no hunger strike. Instead, he reportedly told Friedman, women there were engaged in a “boycott of dining facilities.”

CEO George Zoley also allegedly said the women held at Karnes “have a higher standard of living” than they had in their home countries, implying the mothers should be grateful for their and their children’s incarceration at the Karnes prison camp.

Friedmann said the company lauded its performance during the previous fiscal year, saying that there had been “no major disturbances or operational problems” at its for-profit prisons and jails. GEO Group representatives also reportedly said they hope to expand in the coming fiscal year, and have predicted an increase in contracts with ICE at the state and federal level in 2015 to lock up asylum-seeking families.

Meanwhile, a federal court in California heard arguments last Friday, April 24, granting a tentative motion to enforce the settlement agreement in Flores v. Holder, indicating that the Obama administration’s policy of detaining families in prison-like camps that are not state-licensed, child-care facilities violates the settlement agreement in the 2008 Flores case, and denying the government’s argument to modify the settlement to allow for current family detention policies.

The Flores agreement set minimum national standards for the detention and release of children by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or ICE, requiring ICE to make an effort to release a detained child to a parent, close adult relative, or other guardian, if possible.

Natarajan, alongside her co-counsel with Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, represented the plaintiffs in the motion and said she is hopeful a final order in the case could result in the eventual winding down of the government’s reliance on the use of family detention.

“We’re hoping … that [the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] will be more clear-headed and use these court rulings to understand that the writing is really on the wall with respect to family detention.”

Natarajan also told Truthout that the court, at the government’s request, has deferred entering the final order in the case, and has given the parties in the motion 30 days to come up with a remedial plan for bringing ICE and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) into compliance with the settlement. She said she expects to meet with ICE and CBP officials within the next couple weeks.

“If we can’t find a plan that is agreed upon and is in line with what the court indicated, then we will ask the court to enter immediate injunctive relief to make sure DHS complies,” she said.