Family Unfriendly

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Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, took a moment from her schedule on Aug. 6 to savor the Department of Homeland Security decision to end immigrant families’ detention at the T. Don Hutto Family Detention facility in Taylor.

“I am elated,” said Gupta, who won a legal case in 2007 forcing Homeland Security to improve “deplorable” living conditions at the facility. “It was a shame Hutto ever opened in the first place,” she said, “and its closure is long overdue.”

The facility, run by the private, for-profit prison firm Corrections Corporation of America, became a controversial symbol of the crackdown on immigrant families during the George W. Bush administration. In 2006, Bush ended the government’s “catch and release” program allowing families to go free, then report to court for immigration hearings. Under the Bush policy, children were imprisoned in detention facilities with their parents until cases could be heard. In some instances, families lived in Hutto for more than a year.

In 2007, conditions were so dire in the 512-bed prison that the ACLU and University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic filed suit on behalf of the children held there. During a tour, lawyers and advocates found children wearing orange prison uniforms. They found that guards had threatened to separate children from their parents as a disciplinary measure. Children had been forced into detention cells at least 12 hours a day, and they received only one hour a day of schooling.

The ACLU lawsuit led to the release of several children and improved living conditions at Hutto, but the settlement was set to expire on Aug. 29. Advocates feared that conditions at the facility would decline again without the suit’s mandates.

“We were just three weeks from the settlement expiring,” Gupta said. “And we were extremely concerned for the families inside the facility.”

Gupta is celebrating the recent decision, but she is also among those disappointed that the Obama administration has not ended family detention altogether.

Gillian Brigham, a spokesperson with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency will continue to detain families but look at “alternatives to facilities like Hutto.”

The agency is working on a plan to move 127 men, women and children from Hutto to Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, an 84-bed former nursing home in Leesport, Penn. The Pennsylvania facility is the only other family detention center in the nation. The Hutto facility will become an all-femail detention center.

Brigham would not explain why Berks, run by another private, for-profit company, might be a better place for families.

Activist Jay Johnson-Castro, who helped organize the first protest against imprisonment of children at Hutto in 2006, said he’s not doing cartwheels yet over Hutto’s closing. “Children are still being held in detention,” he said. “It’s demented thinking to imprison a child for profit.”

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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