Dozens of activists rallied outside the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor on Saturday, denouncing Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s push to secure long-term private contracts for detention centers in Texas. Among the protesters there to support the 512 women locked up in the facility, which is run by private prison contractor CoreCivic, were former detainees who know the conditions inside firsthand. For some, it was the first time they had returned to Hutto since their release.
Brendy Galdamez, from Honduras, remembered being roused from sleep at 5:30 in the morning for head count, enduring painfully low temperatures, and receiving inadequate medical care. “We got sick all the time because of the cold and all they gave us was Ibuprofen and other painkillers,” Galdamez said. Addressing the crowd, she and other women described their experiences as traumatic, filled with psychological and physical abuse. But the worst part, they said, was not having control over their lives.
“The women detained here don’t want better food or hot water,” said Sulma Franco, who was formerly detained in Hutto and is now a detention and immigration organizer with the Austin-based organization Grassroots Leadership. “What they want is their freedom.”
As more voices join the calls to stop for-profit immigrant detention, ICE has expanded its detainee population to over 47,000, the majority held in privately run facilities. Local governments across the country—including Williamson County, home to the Hutto facility—have recently pulled out of agreements to detain immigrants with ICE and for-profit prison operators. But ICE is cutting out the middleman and ignoring communities by contracting directly with the private companies. In Texas, which has more detainees than any other state, ICE is pursuing three new 10-year private contracts for immigrant detention centers, which could include Hutto.
At the time of publication, ICE had not responded to a request for comment. This will be updated if the agency issues a statement.
In June 2018, amid growing public pressure over family separations at the border, the Williamson County commissioners voted to end their contract with ICE and CoreCivic. Advocates hoped that Hutto, which has been scandal-plagued for years, might finally close. But since the contract expired in January, the agency has managed to maneuver around the community’s decision and keep the facility open by securing a temporary short-term agreement directly with CoreCivic. Grassroots Leadership, which helped organize Saturday’s protest, recently filed a lawsuit against ICE for refusing to release information about the contract and its compliance with the competitive bidding process required by federal procurement law.
Though the latest solicitation notice posted to a federal contracting website doesn’t name the facilities being eyed for contracts, the specifications for population size and distance from airports and ICE field offices appear to match Hutto, the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, and the Houston Processing Center. The three facilities account for almost 22 percent of the more than 15,000 people detained in Texas.
If long-term private contacts like the three under consideration in Texas become the new normal, advocates fear there will be little room to de-escalate the sprawling for-profit immigration detention system.
“ICE hasn’t done these kinds of solicitations for direct contracts with private prisons very widely before,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher and organizer with Grassroots Leadership. “If ICE gets away with doing this here, they can use the same contracting structures all across the country very rapidly without any community input or oversight.”
The T. Don Hutto Residential Facility has long been the subject of controversy. In 2017, the FBI opened an investigation after an asylum-seeker from El Salvador alleged being abused and retaliated against by a female guard. The facility has also been involved in litigation concerning forced labor. An Office of Inspector General report from January found that ICE “does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards.”
Liz Castillo, an organizer with the Detention Watch Network, says ICE is going on the offensive as communities across the country push back against for-profit detention. In California, several cities and counties cut ties with ICE after a statewide law banned local governments from initiating or expanding contracts with the agency. But in the city of Adelanto, the largest detention center in the state has continued to hold more than 1,900 detainees after the federal agency contracted directly with the prison operator GEO Group. Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law to go into effect on January 1, banning all private, for-profit prisons and immigrant detention facilities in the state by 2028. But only a couple of days later, ICE posted a request for bids for contracts with three detention centers in California starting in December, in what critics say is a blatant attempt to circumvent the ban.
“These facilities shouldn’t be open one more day, much less 10 years,” Castillo said.
In the meantime, community organizers are facing an increasing lack of transparency about how the Hutto lockup is being run. Franco said that ICE has not allowed her to visit Hutto detainees. “These women are depressed, frustrated, tired, and sick,” Franco said. “But this will not be our future for the next 10 years. We have to fight for the next generation.”
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