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Private Prison Companies’ Plan to License “Baby Jails” Fails in Texas Legislature

by Bob Libal

Legislation developed by private prison corporation GEO Group that would have licensed immigrant family detention centers as “child care facilities” failed in the Texas legislature in May 2017 following widespread opposition by child welfare, medical and immigrant rights organizations.

Companion bills filed in the Texas House (HB 2225) and Senate (SB 1018) would have granted state officials the authority to issue licenses for immigrant family detention centers under lowered standards. The two family detention facilities in Texas, derisively known as “baby jails,” have been at the center of scandals involving medical neglect, sexual abuse, a ban on crayons for children in visitation areas, and multiple hunger strikes by detainees.

“The Texas legislature did the right thing,” said Dr. Laura Guerra-Cardus of Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “Now it’s time for the Department of Homeland Security to follow the advice of their own advisory committee and discontinue detention [of children] as a matter of DHS policy.”

For-profit prison companies run both immigrant family detention centers in Texas. GEO Group operates the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes City, while CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, runs the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, which is the largest immigrant detention facility in the country.

The attempt to license the family detention centers through the Texas legislature followed successful litigation brought by immigrant mothers held at the facilities and Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that opposes prison privatization.

 On December 2, 2016, District Court Judge Karin Crump invalidated a regulation promulgated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) that permitted the licensure of Karnes and Dilley as child care facilities. According to the court, the regulation allowing the licensing of the family detention centers “contravenes Texas Human Resources Code ... and runs counter to the general objectives of the Texas Human Resources Code.” See: Grassroots Leadership, Inc. v. Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services, District Court of Travis County (TX), Case No. D-1-GN-15-004336.

The DFPS regulation would have also authorized licensure without compliance with fundamental state minimum standards that ordinarily apply to child care facilities – including a standard that prohibits children from sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults.

The private prison firms that run the detention centers spent big money pushing for the licensing legislation, according to a report released in April 2017 by Texans for Public Justice. That report found that private prison companies paid lobbyists $220,000 to $480,000 to advocate in the Texas legislature during the past session.

GEO Group had previously told its investors that attaining licensure for its Karnes County family detention facility would allow it to detain children for longer periods of time, saying: “Presently, the center operates as a short-term processing facility and this licensing process will allow for longer lengths of stay.”

The Associated Press reported that a state representative who introduced the House bill said it came directly from GEO Group.

“I’ve known the lady who’s their lobbyist for a long time....That’s where the legislation came from,” state Rep. John Raney told the Associated Press. “We don’t make things up. People bring things to us and ask us to help.”

“The judge issued that ruling and then folks in the legislature were courted and lobbied by private prison companies that stand to make a lot of money off of these centers, who basically write the law to get them to license these centers,” said Cristina Parker, Grassroots Leadership’s immigration programs director.

Although the bill passed in the state Senate, the House version died when it was not heard before the May 11, 2017 deadline. Advocates applauded the demise of the legislation.

“How we treat our most vulnerable reflects our values as Texans,” noted Marisa Bono, with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We’re gratified that the Texas legislature decided not to set up a separate standard of care for immigrant children in the state by allowing the licensure of detention facilities as childcare centers.”

Will Francis of the National Association of Social Workers Texas Chapter added, “Texas’ child welfare system was not designed to license family detention centers, and the conditions in these facilities run counter to what research shows is the best environment for the wellbeing of children. No amount of regulation will fix this issue, and all of the families in detention should be released into the community immediately.” 


Bob Libal is the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin, Texas-based national civil and human rights organization. He provided this article exclusively for PLN.

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