Counties Modify, Cancel Contracts for Privately Operated Immigration Detention Centers
by Matt Clarke
Using a type of contract known as an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (ISA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has partnered with local governments to place immigrant detainees in unused jail beds or detention centers built specifically for that purpose, creating a network of facilities that are often run by private prison companies. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.44]. However, the legal liability and public criticism faced by counties and cities that participate in such arrangements has some of them saying “no” to ICE.
The small, farming-centered town of Eloy, Arizona hosts a 1,550-bed ICE detention center run by private prison operator CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Opened in 1994, it is one of four facilities the company manages in or near Eloy. In the summer of 2018, about 300 immigrant women were detained there after being separated from their children by ICE.
Now those women will be sent over 900 miles away to Dilley, Texas, where ICE and CoreCivic run a facility that can house up to 2,400 immigrant detainees. The South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), the largest immigration detention center in the U.S., opened in 2014 in a converted 50-acre camp originally built for workers in the area’s now-depleted oil fields.
Until recently, ICE had to pay both Dilley and Eloy under a modification to Eloy’s ISA contract that allowed the STFRC facility in Texas to be used by the agency. Then Yasmin Juarez, a Guatemalan refugee, was detained at STFRC in March 2018 along with her 17-month-old daughter, Mariee. When the child grew ill, Juarez unsuccessfully sought medical attention. On March 26, 2018, just days after her release from the detention center, Mariee was admitted to a hospital near the New Jersey home of Juarez’s sister.
Mariee died in May 2018 due to respiratory failure.
In September 2018, Juarez filed a $40 million lawsuit against ICE and CoreCivic, alleging their failure to provide proper medical care was the cause of Mariee’s subsequent death. Her attorney, R. Stanton Jones, said Juarez and her daughter were released only after officials realized how sick the child was.
Due to the ISA between Dilley, ICE and Eloy, the Arizona town was also named as a defendant in the suit. Later that same month, Eloy’s city council agreed to a request from ICE to cancel its ISA, which was worth about $438,000 annually, according to City Manager Harvey Krauss.
“This [ISA] was initiated by ICE, it wasn’t initiated by us,” Krauss said. “We didn’t have any control or say in that.”
In November 2018, Jones refiled the suit on behalf of Juarez seeking $60 million in damages for inadequate care that Mariee received from ICE and CoreCivic – removing Eloy from the case. ICE, CoreCivic and Eloy remain under contract to operate the Eloy detention center, while separately, ICE, CoreCivic and Dilley will keep STRFC open.
Meanwhile, on June 26, 2018, the Commissioners Court in Williamson County, Texas voted 4-1 not to renew a contract with ICE and CoreCivic, set to expire in January 2019, to maintain the T. Don Hutto immigration detention center outside Austin. Operating out of a converted medium-security prison, Hutto held about 500 female detainees as of July 2018, including around 40 mothers separated from their children by ICE.
As the Commissioners Court met inside, protestors from the Shut Down Hutto Coalition circuited the courthouse perimeter in a “Jericho march.” Sofia Casinim, a campaign organizer with Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit opposed to prison privatization that was working with women held at the facility, said her group had been pressuring the county commissioners for months.
But the recent crisis over immigrant children separated from their parents by ICE “really touched a different kind of community nerve,” she noted. The organization had set up the Hutto Deportation Defense and Bond Fund to support the detained women, and networked with other groups opposed to renewing the Hutto contract.
“Being the go-between for a federal agency and private business on a federal issue such as this is not a core county function,” said Williamson County Commissioner Terry Cook, who voted in favor of ending the contract. “I have appreciated the passion from activists that has been expressed to me and this Court in regards to T. Don Hutto. While this vote today does not solve the larger issue of immigration, the future of the women detained there, or the closing of the facility, I hope these activists do not celebrate this vote, but redouble their efforts in changing immigration policy at the federal level.”
Allegations of abuse at Hutto include two detainees who recently accused CoreCivic guards of sexual assault. One, Laura Monterrosa, said she was put in solitary after she spoke out. Previously, a Hutto employee pleaded guilty to charges related to the sexual abuse of eight women being transported to the airport or bus station. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.1; Dec. 2011, p.42]. However, the Fifth Circuit ordered the dismissal of a lawsuit the abused detainees filed against ICE officials, who allegedly knew the employee was transporting women alone in violation of CoreCivic’s contract. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.46].
Despite the county’s action, the Hutto detention center will not close due to an agreement between ICE and CoreCivic to extend the term of the contract to house immigrant detainees at the facility. While the county is no longer involved, there are indications the City of Taylor, where Hutto is located, has been cooperating with CoreCivic.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time, and we thought we were finally going to shut the place down after a decade,” said Grassroots Leadership researcher and organizer Bethany Carson.
Additionally, in August 2018, ICE issued a request for proposals to build and operate a 500-bed detention facility within a 50-mile radius of Austin, to expand its capacity in the area.
“We are outraged, but not surprised,” Carson stated. “ICE grows more shameless every day and is as beholden to their private prison partners as ever.”
Sources: Associated Press, grassrootsleadership.org, azcentral.com, rocketcitynow.com, kxan.com, austinchronicle.com, inthesetimes.com