Thursday, July 24, 2008

Taylor Daily Press: ICE Blocks 911 Calls from Hutto

Philip Jankowski reporting:
Outgoing 9-1-1 calls placed by immigrants detained at T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor will soon be blocked after Immigration Customs Enforcement changes the phone system in the former prison.

The block affects telephones used specifically by immigrants housed in the facility. Also blocked will be all incoming phone calls.

The change came as part of a change in the contract between Williamson County and Immigration Customs Enforcement billed as "Modification ... relating to Low Cost Telephone Services" on the county commissioners' agenda Tuesday.

The commissioners voted 5-0 in favor of the item with no discussion of the matter. After the vote, County Judge Dan Gattis said he was unaware the alteration in the agreement effectively blocked outgoing 9-1-1 phone calls.

Regional Spokesman for ICE Carl Rusnok said the ability of residents at T. Don Hutto to place 9-1-1 phone calls is unnecessary because of the presence of trained medical professionals inside the facility.

"(T. Don) Hutto residents already have access to emergency attention by contacting any on-site resident supervisors. Medical professionals and facilities are also on site and can provide immediate services inside the center while ... personnel alert outside emergency responders through the 9-1-1 system, if deemed necessary," Rusnok said in an e-mail response.

Rusnok also said blocking 9-1-1 calls prevents any possibility of abuse.

Local League of United Latin American Citizens member and T. Don Hutto critic Jose Orta said ICE and Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the facility, were "covering themselves" from any possible calls to police.

He referenced an alleged sexual assault that occurred in the facility in May of 2007. That incident led to the firing of a CCA employee after he was caught on a surveillance camera sneaking in and out of a detainee's cell.

No charges were ever filed against the employee in that instance because of a now-corrected loophole in federal law.

The order approved Tuesday also expresses that phones should have access to toll-free numbers that will allow residents to use prepaid phone cards they purchase while at the facility, though it makes no mention of toll-free numbers to consulates or embassies.

"(Immigrants are) already hogtied as far as reaching out into the community," Orta said. "I get calls all the time — desperate families — they Google and see they are at the facility and sometimes they can't find their family members. If (residents) can't call out without these telephone cards, who knows how they'll ever get in touch."

Assistant County Attorney Hal Hawes, who submitted the deal to the commissioners' court, said blocking 9-1-1 calls would not cause any problems at the facility.

"They (CCA employees) provide security already," Hawes said. "They have a good sense of when 9-1-1 needs to be called."

The text of the alteration refers to 10 telephones being purchased and service with the capabilities of blocking 9-1-1 calls. The cost of the alteration is $942.01, a relatively small expenditure for the county.

Orta only partially blamed commissioners for letting the agreement slip through without any debate.

"This is the sad part about the county commissioners; they're not privy to all that goes on in T. Don Hutto. Every time they amend their contract ... ICE ... is not going to be forward about their intentions," he said.

Grassroots organizer and frequent protester of the facility Bob Libal said not allowing immigrants to place emergency phone calls is unsafe and that residents need access should they feel a need to call the police.

"It certainly doesn't seem like a good safety measure. And if ICE is upholding (T. Don) Hutto as a place that is safe and secure, that doesn't seem like a very appropriate action," Libal said.