Women’s Day march targets
Texas prison for immigrants
Published Mar 13, 2008 1:00 AM
Activists from several Texas cities, joined by reporters and local residents,
gathered here March 8 to march against the incarceration of immigrant families
in the T. Don Hutto immigration detention prison. The occasion was
International Women’s Day.
Denia says her
children still have
WW photo: Gloria Rubac
The prison, run by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the country’s
largest for-profit jailer, is 30 miles north of the Texas capital. It imprisons
families and children under harsh conditions that have caused protests to get
it shut down.
Adrienne Evans with the Free the Children Coalition in Terlingua, Texas, had
called for people “to join together and make a stand against this
injustice inflicted on women and children by our government. What better way to
spend International Women’s Day?”
Women, children and their male allies held a peace walk through downtown Taylor
and then rallied across from the detention center until sunset. They ended with
a candlelight vigil and a prayer ceremony.
The Department of Homeland Security opened the 510-bed facility in May 2006 as
the first detention center for families. Hutto holds men, women, some of whom
are pregnant, children and infants while their applications for political
asylum are being considered. None is charged with a criminal offense, yet they
are all held in a former prison under prison-like conditions.
Most of the detainees are from Central and South America. There are also
Africans, Asians, Europeans and families from the Middle East.
At a congressional hearing two days before International Women’s Day,
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had defended the
administration’s treatment of immigrants during workplace raids and at
detention facilities. He faced tough questioning by U.S. Reps. Sheila
Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) about the treatment of
children at immigrant facilities in Hutto and a smaller family facility in
Berks County, Pa.
On Feb. 9, community activists in Houston had heard a moving personal account
of life at Hutto by a woman who survived it. Denia and her children, who came
from Honduras, spent months at Hutto and are still dealing with the
traumatizing incarceration. Speaking through a translator, she and her mother,
María, shared how the children still have nightmares about the prison.
Denia said that her main source of stress while at Hutto was that she and her
children were constantly hungry. They didn’t get proper nutrition, even
though Denia was pregnant at the time. She received no prenatal care and
worried that her unborn child was ill. María had heard about a woman
having a miscarriage due to lack of health care, so she visited often and left
enough money for Denia to buy food and phone cards. But Denia received only one
bag of chips and one phone card.
Denia’s children were not allowed to have toys in their cell. They
received only one hour of schooling a day and the rest of the time had to sit
quietly. There was never normal playtime for the children.
The meeting was co-hosted by Multicultural Education through Counseling and the
Arts (MECA) and Grassroots Leadership. A film, “Hutto: America’s
Family Prison,” was screened about the ongoing campaign to shut down the
Denia’s experiences are typical of abuses other detainees suffered in
Hutto. Fortunately, the protests over conditions at Hutto attracted many in the
immigrant rights movement in Austin, Texas, including attorneys and law
students. The ACLU won a lawsuit against Chertoff last August.
Immigration lawyer Frances Valdez said the settlement resulted in dramatic
improvements at the facility. Pregnant women detained at Hutto are now
receiving prenatal care and better food. Children are allowed more time outside
and families can wear normal clothes instead of prison uniforms which everyone,
including infants, was forced to wear. Though the lawyers had hoped to shut
down the facility completely, Valdez said the settlement to improve the
situation was as far as they could legally take the case.
Valdez stressed the need for continued activism. “I really think the best
way to change it is your political activism. With enough political pressure,
you can shut it down.”
During the March 4 primaries in Texas, dozens of Democratic Party precinct
caucuses in five counties passed resolutions to shut down Hutto. These
resolutions will proceed to senatorial district conventions on March 29 and
then to the state convention on June 5.
The detention of immigrants is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in
this country. It has become a profitable business since 9/11. At the end of
2006 there were 14,000 people locked up for violating immigration law. This was
up by 79 percent from 2005, the year that Chertoff announced the U.S. would no
longer allow undocumented immigrants to remain free in the country while
awaiting a court appearance.
While private prisons began in earnest in the 1980s, by 2000 they weren’t
faring well as escapes, prisoner rebellions and mismanagement sent their stock
values plummeting. But after 9/11, when the government began detaining more
immigrants, they made their prison beds available and business was again
In 2005, the year CCA was awarded the contract for Hutto, the company paid
close to $3.4 million to five different lobbying firms. CCA now charges the
federal government $34 million a year to run the Hutto facility.
Williamson County, where Hutto is located, is the intermediary in the agreement
between the federal government and CCA. The county receives a dollar a day for
each detainee at Hutto, which can add up to as much as $180,000 per year.
One of the founders of CCA was Terrell Don Hutto, once the director of the
Arkansas state prison system. He became the defendant in Hutto v. Finney, a
famous case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 and was one of the
first successful lawsuits by prisoners against a prison system. The court ruled
that Arkansas prisons, where inmates were held in solitary confinement for
indefinite periods of time, used cruel and unusual punishment.
The land on which Hutto was built was originally cooperatively owned by Mexican
workers. Since they had been denied a place in town to park their trucks during
cotton season, the workers pooled their wages to purchase the land. It later
became a place to congregate and have fiestas and eventually became known as
During the 1980s the workers were unable to pay the property taxes, so they
donated the land to the Catholic parish church with the understanding it would
be parish property. However, the church later sold the land. Ironically, the
CCA prison now sits on land once owned by immigrants.
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