Bill to License ‘Baby Jails’ as Child Care Facilities Clears First Legislative Hurdle

Senate Bill 1018 would allow prison firms to skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must deal with.

immigrants, migrants, refugees
A Border Patrol agent detains a woman and her child, who were fleeing violence in El Salvador, at the Texas-Mexico border.  Jen Reel

The private prison companies that run detention centers for immigrant kids and their mothers have a problem: They can’t legally hold families for an extended period in Texas unless they are licensed as child care facilities. The Texas Legislature has a solution, though. On Wednesday, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would simply lower the state standards for family detention centers. The prison firms could skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must deal with.

“The point of the bill is to slap a license on the family detention center without substantially changing their operation,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant rights group. “It’s an attempt to maintain and expand the system of for-profit family detention.”

Family detention centers are used by the federal government to hold immigrant mothers and children who arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum while their cases are processed. Two of the nation’s three facilities are in Texas, and both are run by private prison corporations. The two can hold about 3,200 detainees.

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Critics, including the Texas Pediatric Society, say the facilities cause depression and anxiety and can impede development in children.

“Just by having the conversation of whether it’s OK to keep children in prison, we’re damaging the state of Texas,” said Pastor Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in a committee hearing earlier this month.

Senate Bill 1018 would effectively lower state standards for family detention centers in order to license them as child care facilities. For example, the bill would allow DFPS to permit minors to share a room with unrelated adults, as sometimes happens in immigrant detention.

Karnes County Residential Center
Karnes County Residential Center  Bob Owen / San Antonio Express-News/ZUMA Wire)

Due to federal court rulings, family detention centers can currently only hold children for a few weeks at a time, but the legislation would allow the centers to detain mothers and children for the duration of their legal cases, which can take months or even longer.

The Associated Press reported last week that SB 1018 was written by a lobbyist for the GEO Group, a prison company that runs the 830-bed Karnes County Residential Center. The facility brings in $55 million per year for the company from the federal government.

The bill’s author, Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, maintains that the licensing process will allow the state to provide oversight and ensure the safety of the children.

Despite opposition from advocates, formerly detained families and Democratic lawmakers, the bill will now move to the full Senate.

Gus Bova is a reporter-researcher at the Observer. He focuses on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements. Before the Observer, he worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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Published at 5:15 pm CST
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