Texas Senate Votes to License ‘Baby Jails’ as Child Care Facilities

SB 1018 would effectively lower state standards in order to license the facilities. The legislation was written by a for-profit private prison corporation.


A Central American group of women and children found in McAllen by Border Patrol.  Jen Reel

The Texas Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would license immigrant family detention centers, which critics call “baby jails,” as child care facilities. Democrats railed against Senate Bill 1018, which would allow prison firms to skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must follow.

The bill was written by GEO Group, Inc., the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison corporation. It advanced on a 20-11 party-line vote, with all Senate Republicans in favor.

“The very idea of holding children in a baby jail is unconscionable in my book. … They’re not leaving their country to come here for fun,” said Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. “This is a vendor bill if I’ve ever seen one.”

SB 1018 provides the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) with broad authority to waive any minimum standards it deems necessary in order to license the facilities.

The centers are used by the federal government to hold mothers and children seeking asylum, often after fleeing violence in Central America. Due to federal court rulings, family detention centers can currently only hold children for a few weeks at a time, but the bill would allow the facilities to detain mothers and children for the duration of their asylum cases.

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

Two of the nation’s three family detention facilities are in Texas, and both are run by private prison corporations. Together, they can hold about 3,200 detainees.

“[The bill] is placing a lot of faith in the ability of the state to protect these children, but the bottom line is these are prisons and there’s no question about that,” said Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso. “There may be some TVs here and there, some bunk beds, but it is a secure facility, a baby jail.”

Rodríguez also said SB 1018 would lead to “lesser standards and lack of accountability that will result in women and children being harmed.” The Texas Pediatric Society has said the facilities cause depression and anxiety and can impede development in children.

Hughes — who admitted Tuesday he’s never been to a family detention center and had only “seen pictures” — defended his bill, claiming it would protect immigrant children by allowing the state to regulate the facilities. He also said it would prevent the separation of families.

From left: State Senators Bryan Hughes,R-Mineola, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound  Sam DeGrave

“We’re talking about these facilities, compared to what?” Hughes asked. “The feds could separate the families, and we can imagine the trauma that would cause.”

But Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said last month his department would not separate families at the border.

Advocates argue that asylum-seeking families can simply be released to live with family or in shelters while their cases resolve. Ninety-five percent of asylum-seeking families with legal representation show up to court, said Senator Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

Dozens of people testified against the legislation and four spoke in favor last month in committee. Three of the four were employees of GEO Group, which receives $55 million annually from the federal government to run the Karnes County Residential Center.

Representative John Raney, R-College Station, the author of the identical House version of the bill, admitted to the Associated Press that the legislation was authored by GEO Group. Hughes said Tuesday he “didn’t read the whole story.”

“It’s outrageous that the Texas Senate just passed a bill bought and paid for by private prison corporations whose sole purpose is to detain immigrant children for longer,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a group that opposes mass incarceration.

The legislation now advances to the Texas House.