Thursday, April 24, 2008

The 'real tour' of ICE's PR media showcase

From the Houston Chronicle:

Imprisoned families: on the real tour
By LISA FALKENBERG

...The family-friendly reforms come after more than a year of harsh media
spotlight, tireless efforts by The Women's Commission for Refugee Women
and Children and a pile of lawsuits brought by the ACLU of Texas.

Yet, as immigration officials ushered reporters through the facility
this week to show off their progress, one high-ranking ICE official
tried to claim that the changes would have happened without the
lawsuits.

"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior
to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated
prior to the settlement," Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for
detention and removal, was quoted saying in an Associated Press story.

Mead is the same guy who told me early last year - when Hutto's fence
was still rimmed in razor wire and immigrant kids were still issued
uniforms, counted three times a day and subjected to substandard
education and health care - that his agency had already made the former
prison as homelike as it could.

"I think we've done a very good job of softening things to make it as
family-friendly as we can," Mead told me in February 2007.

That doesn't sound like a reform-minded official intent on pushing for
major changes.

A month after Mead's 2007 comments, the Texas chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union filed 10 lawsuits against the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, alleging inhumane conditions
that violated virtually every provision in a 1997 settlement protecting
immigrant minors and defied Congress' directive to jail children as a
last resort.

Without the lawsuit, an earlier critical report by the Women's
Commission on conditions, and media coverage all along the way, would
Mead and other officials at ICE have seen the light on their own? I
doubt it.

The changes represent what ICE failed to do from the beginning:
Establish a humane environment fit for children. Hutto, which opened in
May 2006, operated for eight months before media started asking real
questions and two years before Hutto was fit for this week's media
tour.

Of course, Mead's recent comments to reporters may be nothing more than
public relations spin, a federal agency trying to cover its hide. The
comments are harmless, as long as ICE officials don't really believe
them.

The agency should acknowledge its mistakes and see that without
monitoring and questioning and cajoling from outside groups, Hutto
wouldn't have reached this point on its own. Those outside voices will
be crucial in future projects as well.

Mead told reporters that ICE is considering opening more facilities to
detain families around the country, using Hutto as a model.

Opening more family detention facilities is a troubling prospect in and
of itself, considering that ICE has been specifically instructed by
congressional appropriations committees to prioritize alternatives,
such as effective, less-expensive electronic monitoring.

But one can only hope the mistaken model of converting a former prison
into a "homelike" environment won't be duplicated.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Opposition to detention of immigrant children growning nationally

This was just posted on CAUSA Oregon website.


OVER 80 ORGANIZATIONS JOIN IN OPPOSITION TO LEGISLATION DETAINING IMMIGRANT CHILDREN

April 22, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, in a letter to the House of Representatives, over 80 federal, state, and local organizations from across the nation expressed their strong opposition to the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act (H.R. 4088) of 2008, legislation that explicitly calls for the creation of a family detention facility that will result in the "incarceration" of immigrant children. The letter was spearheaded by First Focus, a bipartisan children's advocacy organization.

The SAVE Act disregards recommendations repeatedly made by Congress that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should "release families or use alternatives to detention…whenever possible." Instead, the SAVE Act encourages the practice of detaining innocent children who are often caught in the crossfire of U.S. immigration policy, holding them in facilities that resemble prisons instead of nurturing home environments.

Recently, the Act was subject to a discharge petition, a procedural maneuver which, if a simple majority 218 Representatives sign a petition in support of the bill, shall allow the legislation to bypass the committee process and be placed on the House floor for a vote, despite objections by House leadership. Currently, the petition has over 150 signatures. The Act was introduced by Reps. Heath Shuler (D-NC), Brian Bilbray (R-CA), and Tom Tancredo (R-CO).

"The outpouring of opposition to this bill should send one message to the House of Representatives – placing children in prison-like settings is not who we are as a nation and we will not sit idly by while legislation that would do so is slipped onto the House floor through procedural maneuvers," said Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus. "The sad fact is this bill calls for the creation of a detention facility modeled after the controversial T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, which has been found to be an 'inappropriate and disturbing setting' to hold families. The inappropriate setting and inadequate living conditions of these facilities have led to poor childhood development, education, health care, and nutrition, as well as minimal time for recreational activity and threats of separation from parents. We hope this letter, supported by a broad cross section of organizations from across the nation, will convince many Members of Congress to oppose this ill-advised legislation."

The letter has been signed by 32 national organizations, including First Focus, National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Episcopal Church. Moreover, over 50 state and local organizations from across the country also signed the letter.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Press response to Hutto tour

"Immigration officials show changes at detention center"

Read full article by ANABELLE GARAY Associated Press Writer

TAYLOR, Texas — Pastel-colored walls adorned with cartoon characters, ceramic instead of steel toilets in cells and other upgrades have softened the inside of a former prison where dozens of immigrant children and their families are detained.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials conducted a media tour Tuesday at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor say the facility has become more family friendly thanks to more than 100 modifications. The changes were required under a settlement reached in a lawsuit alleging children were held in prison-like conditions.

ICE officials say the changes would have been implemented even without the lawsuit, and added that they continue to discuss more improvements to the facility where families live in small cells furnished with bunkbeds and a toilet.

"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated prior to the settlement," said Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for detention and removal.

Advocates disagree and contend that public awareness, a report last year detailing conditions at Hutto and the lawsuit spurred ICE to action.

"Because they thought that it was OK," said Michelle Brane, director of the detention and asylum program at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Improvements came "not until they really were forced to make the changes," Brane said.

When the facility first opened nearly two years ago, advocates say uniformed, handcuff-toting correctional officers called "counselors" threatened children with separation from their families. Children received only one hour of classroom instruction a day, lost weight and had limited access to health care, attorneys alleged.

ICE officials have denied that guards used threats or that healthcare was limited. The agency did say that the school day has been significantly expanded since Hutto opened.

ICE is considering opening more facilities to detain families around the country, making Hutto a sort of prototype, Mead said.

"I think we will continue to have family residential centers," Mead said. "In terms of the treatment that people receive here, this is clearly a model."

Texans United for Families calls for closure of Hutto

NEWS ADVISORY

For Immediate Release: April 22, 2008
Contact: Bob Libal – (512) 971-0487
blibal@grassrootsleadership.org

Texans United for Families calls for closure of Hutto and for less-restrictive alternatives to family detention


~ Advocacy coalition calls on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to close T. Don Hutto detention center ~


Austin, TX – Texans United for Families, a coalition of Central Texas advocacy and community organizations, reacted today to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement press tour of the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. T. Don Hutto is a former medium-security prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The prison was re-opened as a family detention center in 2006 with a contract to detain families awaiting immigration proceedings.

"While we're happy that community activism and legal advocacy have forced better conditions at Hutto, a former medium-security prison run by a for-profit prison corporation is still no place for any child and their family," said Bob Libal, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership and a member of Texans United for Families. "Congress has said that detention of families is the last alternative, not the first. We call on ICE to follow Congress's wishes and implement more humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention of children and their families."

The American Civil Liberties Union, UT Immigration Law Clinic, and other representatives for families held at Hutto negotiated a settlement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in August. The settlement ensures increased educational programming, children no longer be required to wear prison uniforms, and a Magistrate Judge performing periodic assessments of the prison, amongst other changes.

In November, media reported that an 8 year-old Honduran girl had been separated from her mother for four days while ICE took the mother to a different south Texas detention center. This, amongst other reports, including an alleged sexual assault by a guard that took place at the facility in June, raise questions about the appropriateness of Hutto as a safe place to maintain family unity. In January, Williamson County and Corrections Corporation of America agreed to a contract with ICE to hold up to 250 single female detainees in addition to the families already being held at T. Don Hutto.

###

Texans United for Families is a coalition of advocacy groups and community organizations including Grassroots Leadership, American Friends Service Committee, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Civil Rights Project, Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral, People Organizing in Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Texas Jail Project.

Media Advisory: Press tour of Hutto scheduled for April 22, 2008

T. Don Hutto Family Facility tour: Media pool information and agreements

TAYLOR, Texas — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will host two media tours of the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center on Tuesday, April 22 at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. A media pool arrangement has been established for video, audio and still photography.


Three media agencies have agreed to serve as pool organizations. The pool tour starts at 9 a.m. Both tours will show various areas of the facility including: a residential dorm, the dining facility, a classroom, the medical unit, the intake area, at the outside recreational area. In order to protect their privacy, media representatives will not record or publish any recognizable faces of any facility residents. The tour will be led by ICE's Acting Director for Detention and Removal Operations Gary Mead in a "walk-and-talk" format.


Since Hutto is a family facility, a pool media arrangement works best to minimize impact on the residents. Mr. Mead will provide a brief introduction to the facility. After the tour, a question-and-answer session with Mr. Mead will be open to all visiting media, including recording devices. One-on-one interviews may also be available on a case-by-case basis, time permitting.


Following are the media pool requirements which all participating media must agree to:


-By participating in this tour, pool media representatives agree to share their pool products of the tour to any requesting media organization without charge, except for tape stock costs;
-Likewise, non-pool media agree to refrain from making any recordings of the tour;
-Due to space limitations, only one person from each media organization may be able to participate in the tour, except for the pool media;
-Hutto residents will be present during the tour. Media representatives will not record or publish any recognizable faces of any facility residents;
-Only pool media will be allowed to take on the tour any recording devices, such as video cameras, still cameras or audio recorders;
-Pool media will not perform any "stand-ups" during the tour.
-Participation in this tour is by invitation only. Any other people or groups who appear for the tour will be turned away.

Below is the contact information for the pool news teams:

KSAT-TV, ABC, San Antonio (Television POOL)

Reporter: Jesse Degallado, 210-351-1310;

Videographer: Todd Stricker

Plan to distribute video: Booking a 30-minute satellite window available to all stations.

Associated Press (Print POOL)

Reporter: Anabelle Garay;

Photographer: Mat Otero; (972) 998-7712

Supervisor: Ron Heflin, Dallas (972) 991-2100

Plan to distribute photos: usual associated press access

KUT- National Public Radio (Radio POOL)

Reporter: Emily Diaz, 5102-471-1631.


If you have any further questions please feel free to contact ICE PAO Nina Pruneda, 210-889-5204.

Taylor resident and LULAC members tour Hutto


After months of requests, several local LULAC representatives, were allowed into Hutto on April 4th for an official tour. The tour was led by officials from ICE and Corrections Company of America, a for-profit prison management corporation which operates the facility.


By Philip Jankowski. Full article available at Taylor Daily Press.

Immigrants detained in the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility are mostly women and children, according to Jose Orta, who recently toured the facility.

The facility has two wings - a family unit for both men and women, and a women's unit, Orta said.

“I was struck with how large it is. There were these two large hallways - all beige with highly polished concrete floors,” Orta said. “It was sort of eerie, it gave the taste of an institution.”

A common misconception is that all residents of the facility are Mexican nationals, Orta said. Actually, out of the 296 residents, only 10 are from Mexico, according to information provided by ICE.

Most immigrants housed in the facility are from Central and South America, with a majority from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. There are also immigrants from China, Poland, India and Burma.

“It's virtually a United Nations,” Orta said.

The government of Honduras disagrees with the federal government's classification of its immigrants as criminals, Wendy Rivera, an official from the Honduran Embassy in Washington, D.C., said.

All inmates are being held while deportation proceedings take place on no other criminal charges besides entering the U.S. illegally - a class C misdemeanor.

Orta said CCA has done away with uniforms resembling prison jump suits or scrubs for immigrants. Now, residents can wear their own clothing, provided it is appropriate for the facility. Otherwise, detainees are provided with jeans and T-shirts, he said.

The family unit houses 66 children, Orta said. Parents and children are not separated, however married couples are not allowed to share a room. According to Orta, officials said couples are not allowed to display affection toward each other.


And from Eye on Williamson, some of Taylor resident Jose Orta's reactions to his visit to Hutto. I encourage everyone to consult the full article. Below are just excerpts..

On Friday, April 4, 2008, I and four others; Rosa Rosales, Elvia Mendoza, Rita Gonzales-Garza and Marcelo Tafoya, were granted access to the CCA/T. Don Hutto Facility. We were given a tour of T. Don Hutto by Evelyn Hernandez, the facility administrator of T. Don Hutto/CCA, George Robertson and Patricia Barbra from ICE.

We were repeatedly told that the infrastructure “is what it is”. The retrofit of the prison includes murals painted in the pods, the razor wire being taken down and the crash gate in the front entrance being dismantled. Mr. Robertson was especially proud of the fact that T. Don Hutto went “well beyond the National Detention Model”.

Seeing the facility from the outside confined to Welch Street pales in comparison with actually entering the facility and seeing it from the inside. I was struck by how large the facility actually is on the inside. T. Don Hutto has a stark, cold institutional prison-like feel. It may be labeled a residential facility, but movement seems to be heavily controlled. Most doors are locked. You must have access codes to obtain entry. All have Hall Monitors/Guards on staff as well as cameras to monitor movement in the hallways.

T. Don Hutto has at least 4 large cavernous beige colored hallways that must be used to access any of the spaces. You can hear the echo of your steps and see your reflection as you walk along the highly varnished concrete floors. The protruding exposed piping and conduits in the ceilings also gives off an industrial feel.

Our tour consisted of the following spaces at T. Don Hutto: the library, the computer lab, a family pod, a women only pod, the visitation area, the cafeteria, a mental health office, the medical office, the gym, the playground, the education portables and the intake/processing room. We were carefully monitored so that we would have very little contact with the detainees.

Most of the detainees that I had a chance to see while peering into closed doors or away from the tour seem oblivious to our presence. Many had blank stares. It was almost as if these women were making the best of the situation at hand. While touring the Women’s Pod, most of the women seemed to be centrally situated in the center of the pod where one TV had Rubi showing. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted one female that was crouched under the pod stairwell – sitting apart from the rest. I didn’t have the foresight to ask why this was so. I saw another woman whose dark piercing eyes seemed filled with sadness.