Immigrant Detention Centers Are Not Day Cares

The efforts of a private prison company to portray its immigrant detention facility as a family prison with a day care have been temporarily blocked by a judge in Texas. The move follows the granting of child care licenses to two immigrant detention centers in border towns near South Texas — what can be considered a dangerous and inhumane attempt to institutionalize incarceration in ways never seen before. 

Travis County Judge Karin Crump recently approved a restraining order effective until June 1, 2016, that prevents the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from granting a second license to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). This company runs an even larger, federal immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas, near San Antonio.

This move follows disturbing recent news of the DFPS granting a child care license to a federal immigration detention center in Karnes City, near San Antonio. It is managed by the Florida-based GEO Group, a private prison corporation worth $1.8 billion.

Federal funds should be financing health and safety improvements in child care settings outside of prison walls.

Immigrant activists filed a lawsuit last week requesting that a federal judge appoint a monitor to oversee the issue. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Defendants have nevertheless ignored their obligation to treat children ‘with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors’ and have continued to violate the settlement and this court’s orders,’ attorneys for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and other groups wrote in their motion.”

Federal funds should be financing health and safety improvements in child care settings outside of prison walls rather than going to private companies such as the GEO Group and CCA, with their histories of maintaining the largest detention system in the world. The decision to have a private detention center receive public funds is a dangerous step in further normalizing unwarranted detention of migrant families.

The GEO Group has contributed nearly $1.5 million to various Texas political campaigns — both Republican and Democrat — since 2011, and was awarded the child care license.

This subcontractor relationship is a state-sponsored option to use immigrant detention centers to create new loopholes that sanction mass incarceration and the increased detention and deportation of immigrants and people of color. This is instead of promoting education, health and other public service resources to help these communities.

US District Judge Dolly Gee recently cited a 1997 settlement that addressed how unaccompanied minors should be treated in detention centers. She found that children were living in deplorable conditions and demanded their immediate release. 

This is an urgent crisis in Texas, but a growing problem in this country for families suffering the effects of incarceration. The United States has the largest population of incarcerated women in the world. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985.

The report states that more than 1.5 million children have a mother in prison, more than 8.3 million children have a mother under correctional supervision and more than one in five of these children are under the age of 5. Barbara Bloom, a professor of criminology at Sonoma State University, points out that when taking both parents into consideration, the number of children jumps to 2.7 million who had a parent in prison or in jail.

A new report by advocacy watchdog group In the Public Interest analyzed 62 contracts between counties and states and private prison contractors. It showed that more than 60 percent of the contracts had a clause that required the county or state to pay for empty beds if they did not lock up a certain number of people.

Children become a cash cow for the prison-industrial complex.

For private companies, this is a surefire way to maximize profits, minimize their risks and ensure a steady income, while allowing taxpayers to foot the bill. However, this approach then requires a continuing coordination and heavy investment between the state and private companies that will result in further criminalization, incarceration and detention of immigrant families.

This new contractual approach reframes family detention centers as a benign support for families rather than addressing the myriad pre-existing human rights violations that make this a bad idea. Children become a cash cow for the prison-industrial complex. Some attorneys who have visited the centers have reported that children do not have adequate health care, are losing weight and hair, and demonstrate signs of depression.

Ultimately, this undermines conversations on quality care and early childhood learning that are the mainstays of the recent reauthorization of the federal child care block grant. Nowhere in the guidance to states does it suggest offering licenses to immigrant detention centers.

This licensing practice is not only unconscionable, but erodes the fundamental trust between government and the people. It also sanctions the relationship between government and private contractors and businesses. In this case, it is at the expense of immigrant children.

Keeping children and their mothers (most whom are fleeing violence from Central America) in detention centers for an indefinite amount of time will do long-term damage to the children’s development. It bars them from access to quality early education and learning that should occur outside of prison walls.

We Belong Together, a national campaign to mobilize women in support of common-sense immigration policies that will keep families together and empower women, agrees.

“These families deserve to be treated with human rights and dignity, not locked up in detention centers,” said We Belong Together co-chair Andrea Mercado. “The fact is that children cannot go home at the end of the day, ride their bikes with their friends and eat a home-cooked meal. Instead of offering refuge and a helping hand, we are prolonging the suffering of women and children. What we are doing is unconscionable.”

As the Karnes facility holds up to 500 beds, and the Dilley facility has the capacity for 2,400 beds, this is a way for the federal government to keep thousands of families who would otherwise be granted refugee status in detention centers, as they face an uncertain future and likely deportation.

Quality child care and early education must be age- and developmentally appropriate and use a play-based curriculum, something children can’t and shouldn’t experience within the concrete jungle of a prison.

While the Texas judge temporarily blocked the child care license for the Dilley facility until June 1, more than 1,800 women and children are being held without immediate release. This containment traumatizes them and violates the ruling from Dolly Gee, a federal judge in California last summer. 

To be sure, a license does make it more likely that the detention facility is meeting basic health and safety requirements for children in supervised care, ensuring staff pass criminal background checks and planning up to three unannounced visits by the DFPS in six months. However, DFPS is the same entity that found the Karnes facility violated six basic health and safety requirements and found 12 violations in the Dilley facility. 

Given that DFPS changed its own rules in order to award the license to the detention center, it appears that profits have taken priority over the lives of children and their mothers. This is increasingly the United States’ approach to poor, Black and immigrant communities of color. 

While all children deserve access to high-quality child care and early education, particularly those who have already suffered great trauma, granting a license to a detention facility for the sole purpose of avoiding release of migrant children and their families is a misuse of funds on the surface.

More deeply, it shows disregard for the lives and well-being of these immigrant children. It also quietly diverts public dollars to private companies and deems this private-public partnership as a viable model.

For the past year, President Barack Obama has called on all Americans to embrace refugees from Syria, especially the youngest refugees, with open arms.

“Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do,” Obama said in 2015.

Perhaps the president, and those candidates hoping to become president, can extend this generosity to refugees from Central America who are also fleeing violence.

Detention centers, even those that are licensed to provide child care, are terrible places to raise children. We hope for these children’s sake that the next step is to make the temporary block permanent. Prison is not a suitable site for day care. Let’s stop the practice before it starts and treat all children humanely.