Gus Bova

‘Recipe for Disaster’: New Family Detention Center Could Open in South Texas

The proposed facility — a shuttered nursing home in San Diego, Texas — would be run by a British private prison company with a history of alleged abuses in Australia and England.


Above: A shuttered nursing home outside San Diego, Texas, which could be turned into a family detention center.

Trump’s desire to jail thousands of immigrant families for months at a time has rekindled an economic romance between a tiny South Texas county and a British security megafirm.

Duval County Judge Ricardo Carrillo told the Observer that Serco Inc. emailed him in June, asking about turning a shuttered nursing home just outside of San Diego, Texas, into a family detention facility. Carrillo said he’s now working with the company to submit a “joint application” to the feds for the facility, which he hopes will bring jobs to the impoverished area. He’s waiting for Serco to “crunch the numbers” and get back to him, he said.

Serco’s move comes as Trump works to indefinitely incarcerate families as an alternative to family separations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently put out feelers regarding adding 12,000 family detention beds on “military bases,” plus 15,000 additional family beds around the country. Currently, there are only 3,300 family detention beds nationwide, most in a pair of South Texas lockups.

A Serco van. The British security firm’s clients include all branches of the U.S. military and several U.S. intelligence agencies.  Courtesy/Wikimedia

In light of Trump’s family separations, Carrillo said he sees collaborating with the administration on family detention as a moral imperative. “If the number of illegals in detention is going to go up for a period of time, then I think it’s necessary for local government entities to put their foot down and say, ‘Look, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it with families as a whole,’” Carrillo said.

But family detention itself has long been the focus of controversy. Immigrants have described horrific conditions at for-profit lockups, and human rights organizations have condemned family detention as traumatizing, especially to children — hardly a humanitarian alternative to separations.

“It’s trading one system of abuse of children for another,” said Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin group that fights private prisons. “And the Trump administration’s plan is indefinite detention, meaning parents and children could be detained for years.”

Medical experts have said family detention is incompatible with the well-being of children. “Children being held in detention, with or without their parents, are undergoing extraordinary stress and pain,” wrote Luis Zayas, the dean of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, in a recent court filing. “When the stress is unremitting … the body begins to break down, and the young brain is not allowed to develop normally.”

family separations
Children leave a detention center on a bus.  Alia Salem

A complicated legal battle is now playing out over family separations and how long the administration can hold kids in family detention, but as things stand, the government may offer parents a choice: Stay in detention indefinitely with your kid, or be separated. Because many will choose the former — and because family apprehensions at the border remain high — the future looks bright for those looking to profit off locking up families.

Serco did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls regarding this story, and an ICE spokesperson said the agency had “no information on the matter.”

The Duval County property, a red-brick X-shaped building on a 9-acre plot, sits just off State Highway 44 outside the tiny town of San Diego. A sign out front still reads “La Hacienda Clinic & Nursing Home,” though the building has stood vacant since 2014. As a nursing home, the facility was licensed for 114 residents.

As with other poor South Texas counties, Duval County is largely motivated by the jobs the private prison industry promises. Home to about 11,000 people, the county is around 90 percent Hispanic and has a 26 percent poverty rate. Carrillo said his constituents largely depend on oilfield work, but have to commute “many miles” away for those jobs.

“It’s trading one system of abuse of children for another.”

This isn’t the first time Serco has tried to open a family detention center at the former nursing home in San Diego. In 2016, the company nearly got a deal off the ground through an agreement with ICE and Jim Wells County (the facility straddles the line between Jim Wells and Duval). Dozens of activists, however, protested at the county commissioners court and called attention to Serco-run detention centers in Australia and England that have been the sites of sexual assault allegations. The county rejected the deal.

Undeterred, Serco went to neighboring Duval, who agreed to partner with the company and ICE. The county would formally operate the facility, earning about $100,000 a year; Serco would handle day-to-day operations. With the county’s involvement, ICE and Serco would be spared a public federal bidding process.

According to statements made by the company and county officials in 2016, the facility was to hold 400 to 450 immigrants and provide some 200 jobs. But after Trump’s election, the number of families arriving at the border slowed to a trickle, scuttling plans for the facility. But an uptick in arrivals, as well as Trump’s crackdown on children and their parents, has changed the picture.

It’s unclear whether the plan now is the same as in 2016. Back then, Serco also pitched the facility as a more open, child-friendly alternative to existing family facilities, and it’s unknown whether they would make the same sell under Trump.

Regardless, it’s doubtful critics would be appeased. “Serco is an internationally notorious private prison corporation,” said Libal. “Even when they try to dress up their facilities, they’re still operated really poorly. … The whole thing’s a recipe for disaster.”