•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

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.

Former detainee
Denia says her
children still have
nightmares about
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 facility.

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 profitable.

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 Hidalgo Park.

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.