On April 9, 2007, a federal district court in Texas held that the conditions of confinement at a privately-run facility used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold families detained due to immigration issues violated the terms of a class-action settlement related to the detention of children.
Challenges to conditions at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center were raised in sixteen civil rights suits filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The plaintiffs were minor children who entered the United States illegally with their parents. Prior to 9-11, immigration detainees with families were released on bond and given a date to appear in court, which was referred to as the ?catch and release? policy.
After 9-11 and the creation of ICE under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), immigration policies were tightened and immigration detainee families were incarcerated using separate facilities for men, women and children. In response to concerns about removing children from their parents, ICE developed the concept of family detention centers (FDCs). There are two FDCs; one in Berks County, Pennsylvania is a converted nursing home, while the other, the Hutto facility, located in Taylor, Texas, is a converted medium-security prison that has been operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) since it opened in May 2006. [See: PLN, Aug. 2007, p.10].
The main issue raised in the lawsuits was that despite being used to house families and children, Hutto largely remained a medium-security prison and was run like a prison. For example, the facility was surrounded by razor wire, families were housed together in cellblocks, and there was a lack of privacy. Other complaints included cold rooms, inadequate medical care, inedible food, and guards who verbally and psychologically abused the detainees. There was 24/7 camera monitoring of communal and personal living areas, detainees had to be escorted wherever they went, and there were no contact visits. Detainees, including children, had to wear prison uniforms.
These might be considered typical conditions for a prison or immigration detention center, were children not involved. The chairman of CCA?s board of directors, William Andrews, stated the Hutto facility was ?almost like a home.? Which might be true if one?s home were a prison.
All of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits were covered by a class-action settlement in Flores v. Meese, Case No. 85-cv-4544-RJK (C.D. Cal, 1997), which ?set out nationwide policy for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in the custody of? the government. The Flores settlement was binding on ICE and DHS. The settlement agreement included a preferred policy for release of all minors in custody, and required that minors be detained in a ?licensed program? until released or deported.
The program must be licensed by an appropriate State agency to provide residential care for dependent children, must be non-secure as required by state law, and must meet standards of medical care, education, supervision and nutrition as specified in the Flores settlement. A minor may only be held in a secure facility if chargeable with a serious crime, violent (including threats of violence), disruptive (e.g. using drugs, stealing, intimidating other children), an escape risk, or endangered in a non-secure facility. Flores allows any detained child to sue in any federal court to enforce the terms of the settlement.
The Texas district court found that Hutto was not a licensed facility, since it had received a license waiver, not a license, and should not have received the waiver under the applicable statutes. Hutto was not non-secure as required by the Flores settlement, and detainees were confined to their common areas (the day room of a former cell block) except for sleeping periods, meals and scheduled education and recreation periods. There were several standing head counts each day and the lights were kept on constantly. The food was substandard, showers inadequate, medical care woefully insufficient (especially for children), the level of education was ?absolutely inappropriate,? and required counseling and individual assessments were not being performed.
The Hutto facility further lacked required group counseling, contact visitation and privacy (including a lack of private attorney-client visitation areas, medical/psychological consultation areas, private space for personal possessions, and private personal clothing). The court found that CCA guards had threatened children who acted up and adults who committed minor rules violations with separation from their families.
The district court held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail at trial, and therefore granted a preliminary injunction ordering ICE to comply with the Flores settlement in regard to conditions at Hutto.
Finding no irreparable injury to the detained children if they continued to be held at the CCA-run facility, especially in light of evidence that CCA was trying to improve conditions, the court denied the plaintiffs? requested relief of immediate release from custody.
The 16 lawsuits over conditions at Hutto, which were filed by the ACLU?s national office, the ACLU of Texas, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic and the law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP, were consolidated into one case and subsequently settled on August 26, 2007.
Pursuant to the settlement, the ICE and DHS defendants were required to improve a wide range of living conditions at the facility; to reduce the average time that families with children are held at Hutto; to permit oversight by a magistrate judge who will conduct on-site inspections; and to ?implement standards governing the care of families detained at Hutto,? including educational and recreational programs for detained children. The settlement terms are effective for two years.
?This is a huge victory not only for the children and families that have been released from Hutto, but for every detainee held at the facility, now or in the future,? said Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the ACLU?s Racial Justice Program. ?Though we continue to believe that Hutto is an inappropriate place to house children, conditions have drastically improved in areas like education, recreation, medical care and privacy.?
See: In re Hutto Family Detention Center, USDC WD TX ? Austin Div., Case No. A-07-CA-164-SS.
Williamson County, where Hutto is located, recently considered canceling its contract with CCA due to problems and controversy surrounding the facility. However, the county receives around $15,000 a month from the company and CCA agreed to indemnify the county in the event of litigation, plus pay $5,000 a month for a monitor. CCA continues to operate the Hutto facility, and both CCA and Williamson County continue to profit from the incarceration of immigrant families.
Additional sources: www.aclu.org, www.kxan.com
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Related legal case
In re Hutto Family Detention Center
|Cite||USDC WD TX ? Austin Div., Case No. A-07-CA-164-SS|