Friday, December 26, 2008

Taylor Daily Press: The T. Don Hutto Question

Philip Jankowski weighed different sides of the T. Don Hutto controversy--jobs, county revenue, and the morality of detaining potential citizens-- in the Taylor Daily Press on Monday:

Today county higher ups will make their most controversial annual decision: whether or not to continue the operation of T. Don Hutto Residential Facility.

The facility draws lines in this community between those who support the detention of those who enter the country illegally and those appalled that our government would keep children in a prison.

In its third year in Taylor, the former medium-security prison is now a lightning rod for the ACLU, who accuses the facility of violating immigrants’ civil rights, and LULAC, who seeks to defend the rights of a prison population whose vast majority is Hispanic or Latino.

It is not my place to pass judgement on the facility or the policies that brought it into existence. Each side’s argument holds merit.

America is a nation of immigrants. Our economy relies on the low-cost labor of illegal immigrants. How can we hold these people behind bars?

Yet with the challenges of a country that faces psychotic insurgents hell bent on causing destruction inside our borders, how can we not detain those who enter it illegally?

Locally, the question of revenue comes to mind. The facility brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the city and the school district. It provides well paid jobs for unskilled workers. Corrections Corporation of America has offered continued annual raises to Hutto employees at wages that are more than competitive with typical jobs that do not require a college degree.

But is the financial upside nothing more than selling our morals one tax dollar at a time?

No matter what you call it, T. Don Hutto is a prison. It has 12-foot fences strung with razor-sharp barbed wire. And it is designed for families. Not criminals. Not one immigrant currently housed there is guilty of any other crime than wanting to be an American.

To its credit, the facility has made improvements over its dubious beginnings. It has been redecorated to appear more kid friendly. Detainee turnaround has reduced greatly. Yet some of those improvements were the result of a law suit filed by the ACLU and The University of Texas Law School.

The current freedoms of the facility should have been in place at its opening. Government should not have been forced into treating these children ethically, it should have led the way.

And since then, the facility has continued to linger ominously. Immigrations Custom Enforcement continues to keep security as tight as a snare drum. Reporters are let in once annually.

Even when rarely blessed with positive press, the facility remained closed. In one instance I had a heated back and forth to get in and take a bland and benign photo of a former employee who painted cartoon caricatures on the cinder block walls. In the end, a staff member of the prison ended up taking that photo. It was pretty bad.

Maybe it’s the reporter in me, but the more I’m kept out of a place, the more I feel like something is going on inside that ICE does not want people to see.

Regardless, I do not envy the decision commissioners make today. I expect scores of protesters and people to curse the commissioners’ decision, whatever it is.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Media Coverage of Dec. 20 Toy Delivery

December 24, 2008: The Williamson County Sun* gave extensive front page coverage of Saturday's Toy Drive, including interviews with former detainees who have received asylum and now live in the United States. As you can see from the pictures, hundreds of toys were delivered. But as Denia Borjas points out, received donated toys pales in comparison to receiving gifts from family in the comfort and safety of a home.

The article also notes some of CCA's intimidation tactics--driving past protestors at high speeds, filming the protest, and the inspection of toys prior to delivery. According to the article, there is still some doubt about whether the detainees would receive the toys. If you have information regarding toy delivery, please share it with us...

Thank you to each and all who donated. Please continue to support the closing of Hutto in our "100 events in the first hundred days" campaign! (Check this blog for more information on that in the coming weeks, and contact us if you would like to schedule a film screening, vigil, forum, letter writing, or other event.)

*There is no online version of this article available... please click on the image to view and download a scanned version of the article.

December 22, 2008: New America Media's Roberto Lavalo gives us some "Hope for the Holidays" that begins with the Hutto toy delivery and vigil last Saturday, recounts the Chicago Republic Window factory occupation, and ends with workers' protests for backpay at a San Francisco poultry processings plant. Interviewing Grassroots Leadership's Luissana Santibañez, he writes...

One of the many measures of the hardness of our times can be found in South Texas, where even the simple act of bringing Christmas cheer to children can sometimes require more than just a spirit of charity. In some cases, it often requires the kind of stonecutter's determination one finds in a (Charles) Dickens tale, the determination of someone like Luissana Santinbañez.
"The fact that we're able to bring these toys to children is a huge victory. It took an incredible amount of struggle" says Santibañez, a 25 year-old San Antonio resident who is one of the organizers of a toy drive for children detained along with their immigrant parents behind the concrete walls and barbed wire fences of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center.

"We only got to deliver these toys as a result of lots of litigation and many protests" she says adding "We got to do this because of the community outcry about what's going on behind the walls of those privately-run immigrant detention centers: children and families living in horrific conditions –the lack of medical treatment, the bathrooms without soap, the food with cockroaches, the people dying in detention, the suicides. We can't let them be so cruel to kids; We can't let them hide this."

The "we" Santibañez mentions includes a very broad and diverse group of people of numerous religious, racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, many of whom had never been involved in immigrant rights or any other activism.

The determination exemplified by Santibañez, who got involved in immigrant detention issues after her mother, a former permanent resident detained and eventually deported for allegedly transporting undocumented immigrants, is spreading across the entire country; It mirrors how the plight of immigrants in the United States has given rise to a different kind of hope, a hope rising out of the darkly fertile soil of very hard times.

"I'm committed to this because of people like my mother," she says, her throat trembling with conviction as she also describes how she and her four siblings must rely on one another now that they are "left without a mother." In a country facing colossal challenges – poverty and economic divisions not seen since the Great Depression, fabulous political and corporate corruption surpassing anything seen during the Gilded Age, panic and fear of epic proportions – immigrant stories in the United States are inspiring people around the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Austin American-Statesman: Commissioners to Vote on Hutto

The Austin American-Statesman's David Doolittle covered the upcoming vote his WillCo blog Thursday and in the paper Friday.  

Friday's version includes statements from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) spokesperson Steve Owen, who said that "if the contract is not renewed, families could be split apart waiting for hearings."  First of all, CCA does not make immigration policy, ICE does. The threat of separation has been used throughout the debate about Hutto, to frame the debate as nothing but Hutto-versus-separation.  Second, ICE has a range of less restrictive options at its disposal, funded by Congress, that allow families to live in relative peace and dignity for decisions on their immigration and asylum status.  If ICE were to separate families now, it would go against direct orders from Congress, against the stated intention of the agency, and against regulations that privilege "release to family members" over family separation.  In fact, the other family detention facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania, is far less prison-like and has avoided most (not all) of the problems and controversies surrounding Hutto. 

As the mediator on this contract, it is up to Williamson County to decide whether it wants to have this kind of business on its conscience.  Both detention and family separation traumatize children, and it is time to focus on whether it is morally acceptable for Williamson County residents and CCA investors to profit off of the misfortune of others.  

According to Doolittle, County Judge Gattis and Commissioner Ron Morrison have already decided in favor of renewing the contract--unless "something jumps up and bites" them--but Commissioners Birkman and Covey are undecided.  The commissioners will tour the facility again on Monday.  All of them seemed to sense a sea change with the new administration, and are unsure how this will affect family detention at Hutto.  

The primary difference seems to be between (1) those that favor renewing the contract and seeing what happens with Obama and Napolitano; and (2) those who question why they should renew if a new administration will change the direction of immigration policy.  Unstated, but clearly implied, is an assumption that the Obama administration won't like family detention policy, and that they would gladly let it lapse into obscurity with the rest of the Bush Administration's questionable uses of executive power.  

The next few days are very important for the future of family detention at Hutto.  Let's be the thing that "jumps up and bites" Williamson County Commissioners and pushed them in a new direction.  Let them know that detention is traumatic for families and reflects poorly on the county.
Judge Dan Gattis: (512) 943-1550,
Ron Morrison: (512) 846-1190

Lisa Birkman: (512) 733-5380,
Cynthia Long: (512) 260-4280
Valerie Covey:(512) 943-3370

Press Release: T. Don Hutto Contract Risky Business

12/18/2008   Press Release:  T Don Hutto Contract Risky Business

Opponents to the T Don Hutto prison for non-criminal immigrant families and children located in Taylor, Texas, have consistently protested its basic inhumane conception and operation.  The United States’ Congress has ordered that non-criminal immigrant families awaiting disposition of requests for citizenship applications and/or asylum be detained in the “least restrictive” manner possible.  T Don Hutto is a former medium-security prison that fails this standard, they maintain.  Additionally, the lack of any governmental oversight for T Don Hutto has lead to documented abuse, including the sexual assault of a female prisoner by her guard, in the presence of her young child. 

With the dramatic decline in the American economy, and a major change in the political climate, opponents point out that Williamson County Commissioners Court (WCCC) should refuse to renew its contractual role in that operation on the grounds that it is a risky business deal.  The prison is owned and run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), funded (at a cost of nearly $3 million per month) by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), on a pass-through contract with WCCC, in which the County is paid $1 per day per prisoner for its role as “contract administrator,” potentially amounting to around $15,000 per month at capacity.


Opponents contend that CCA is no longer a strong business partner, given the almost certain decline of funds available for this costly approach; effective alternatives are available at a fraction of the cost of running T Don Hutto. Growth of immigrant detention had previously been assumed to assure CCA a strong financial future; that assumption, according to opponents, no longer is reliable.  Recent, dramatic, reduction in stock value and the uncertainty of future profits raises the question of capacity to perform on the contract at a responsible level, they say.


ICE’s future, they point out, is questionable as well, with some speculation that it may even be moved from the Department of Homeland Security to the Commerce Department.  Incoming President Obama has pledged to deal effectively with the lack of comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office, indicting that the past policy of detention during processing will not comprise the major strategy.  In any case, it is not unlikely that ICE will have a different model of operation in the near future.


Therefore, they argue, the other two parties to this proposed renewal contract are not the same strong business partners in place at the time of the original agreement, with  only WCCC’s strength remaining as it was at that time of the original agreement. 


Adding to that imbalance, monitoring  of the facility ordered under Judge Sparks’ settlement agreement as a result of lawsuits brought against the operation will lapse in August of 2009, leaving a void in that essential function.  This lack, say the opponents, increases  the risk that conditions that led to that lawsuit will re-emerge.  This, in their view, increases the possibility of greater responsibility and legal risk to WCCC and County taxpayers.


T Don Hutto opponent MaryEllen Kersch contends that “under any realistic assessment of  the business risks this renewal poses to the citizens of Williamson County, WCCC should decline to partner in the renewal of the contract.”

WCCC is scheduled to vote on the renewal at its December 23rd meeting at the courthouse in Georgetown.

For more information, please contact  MaryEllen Kersch, 512-863-7174.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Williamson Co. to Vote on Hutto Contract 12/23

Williamson County Judge Gattis announced this morning (12/16/08) that the vote on the proposed renewal of the contract(s) with CCA/DHS to operate T Don Hutto Detention Facility will take place on December 23 at the Williamson County Commissioners Court's weekly meeting.

After that announcement, several citizens spoke against the renewal, and WCCC was reminded that:


  1. Putting families in prison for infractions comparable to running a stop sign is “inappropriate.” 
  2. The lack of oversight and assurance of humane treatment for families held at T Don Hutto is alarming, and contradicted by our national sense of right and wrong, ---and does serious emotional damage to the young prisoners who end up gaining American citizenship. 
  3. Communities that locate a prison in their borders suffer immense long-term economic damage because “clean” economic growth avoids them. The uglier the facility, the greater the damage.
  4. There are alternatives to locking up babies and families, and they are proven to be less expensive-- and just as effective.  But they provide no profit for the prison industry.


So, between now and the eve of Christmas Eve, it is essential that those who opposing contract renewal:


1.  Contact anyone in the county hierarchy who might be able to help us; certainly the WCCC members, but also anyone who could talk to them with good audience.--minister, friends, family  members, etc.  WCCC contact info can be found


2.  Write letters to the editor to the Williamson County Sun, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Chronicle, or other newspaper; contact your local TV affiliate station's news department.  Ask for folks to join our effort on the blogs and email lists.


3  Consider getting a few other supporters to go with you to visit with your Williamson County commissioner--or go on your own; small settings can work far better than large, public ones because the commissioner needn't be defensive of the issue.


4.  Come to Saturday, December 20 vigil in front of the Hutto facility from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. to show support and generate more. (see next post)


5.  Attend the December 23 WCCC meeting that starts at 9:30 a.m.; come early ( CCA often tries to pack the place before it starts), bring others, and seriously consider speaking.  Write a three-minute speech to deliver.


The new faces and voices who have recently come out against the contract renewal have had a huge impact.  We can’t lapse now; let’s celebrate Christmas with the gift of an end to imprisoning innocent families and babies in Williamson County ----in Texas----in the United States of America.

For more information, to share ideas, and to get involved, contact MaryEllen Kersch, maryellenkersch [at] verizon [dot] net,  512-863-7174.

Toy Delivery and Vigil to End Family Detention

Saturday, December 20th, 3-5 pm, T. Don Hutto Detention Center

Please join Texans United for Families, Grassroots Leadership, WilCo Family Justice Alliance, Border Ambassadors, CodePink Austin, the Brown Berets and other organizations and individuals from across the state in the third annual December vigil to end family detention, Saturday, December 20th, from 3-5pm.  Organizers will deliver more than 500 toys to the facility in time for the holiday season.  Toys should be in their original packaging and not on a recall-list to be accepted into the facility. A carpool will leave 2604 E. Cesar Chavez in Austin at 2pm for the Hutto detention center.

If you plan to drive on your own, T. Don Hutto is located at 1001 Welch Drive in Taylor, Texas.

For more information, contact Bob at 512-971-0487 or blibal [at] grassrootsleadership [dot] org.

Update! If you are interested in joining a caravan from Houston, contact Maria Elena Castellanos at castellanoslaw1 [at] gmail [dot] com.  Folks will be leaving from the parking lot of Fedex Kinko's (Magnum exit, Hwy 290, Houston) at around 10:30. Meet up at 9:30 if you would like to make posters for the vigil.

Update! The Brown Berets are organizing a caravan, to leave from the Cesar Chavez Learning Center,1504 E. Commerce Street, San Antonio.  Arrive at 11am to get organized; the caravan will leave at noon.  Please contact Carlos De Leon at 210-627-3647 for more information.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Williamson Co. Residents Take Action Against Family Detention

On December 9, 2008, Sherry Dana and Mary Ellen Kirsch let the County Commissioners know how they feel about T. Don Hutto.

A group of citizens opposing the renewal of the T Don Hutto contract will address that elected body, again on Dec. 16, during the "Citizen Comments" section of the agenda at the start of the meeting.

Local opposition is growing and becoming more vocal in their determination to end WCCC's involvement in this corrupt contract. Last week saw a number of new faces and heard some forceful new voices opposing the renewal of the county's participation in this tragic abuse of power. The WCCC is in the process of considering the terms of the up-dated proposal and it is essential for them to hear our arguments before the item appears on the agenda for formal approval.

Click here for a speech called "Nativity and Immigration" delivered by retired United Methodist minister, Milton Jordon, on December 7.  He reminds us that Mary and Joseph were immigrants, too, and calls on us to maintain the spirit of hospitality by affirming the civil rights of everyone and welcoming diversity into our communities. 

From Sherry Dana,
As you are well aware, the detention of innocent children violates international law, federal law, and Congressional mandates.

You looked the other way when a detainee was raped by a CCA employee. You were unphased when U. S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks found it inexplicable that defendants spent untold amounts of time, effort, and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family detention program, knowing that a federal ruling required immigration authorities to house children in the least restrictive conditions possible.

You ignored the testimony of the detained children and the results of investigations by reputable organizations such as Lutheran Social Services.

Your concern has not been that abuses were occurring but that the county could be held liable. Rather than showing concern for human rights abuses, you chose to add an indemnity clause requiring CCA to pay for an attorney to defend the county in a lawsuit resulting from these abuses.

A speaker at Sunday's vigil just returned from meeting with Sen. Kennedy's staff about T. Don Hutto, one met personally with Pres. elect Obama about T. Don Hutto. Several weren't with us because they were speaking in Washington D.C. and NYC about T. Don Hutto.

As of January 20th, George Bush, Dick Cheney and Michael Chertoff will no longer be in Washington to protect their friends in the private for-profit prison industry. We will have an administration that has vowed to uphold international law, that respects the judicial system, Congress, and the Constitution.

CCA's lawyers will work to protect CCA, not the county, from liability for our complicity in the inhumane treatment of these innocent women and children.

If you cannot find it in your heart to release these children, then look at your financial responsibilities to the county. Protect us from the financial repercussions that will surely come if you renew the Agreement between Williamson County and CCA to imprison women and children who ask for our help and instead are thrown in a private for profit prison.

From Mary Ellen Kersch:

Each Tuesday, this meeting opens with a pledge to our flag, appropriately declaring “liberty and justice for all, ” and that we are “one nation, under God.” That’s followed with a prayer, submitting to the will of God and the teachings of Christ. But when anything relating to T Don Hutto is on the agenda, this body seems to go into an amnesia state and ends up acting in contradiction to those standards of good government and brotherly love. The Golden Rule is regularly broken whenever the corrupt contract with ICE and CCA is under review.

T Don Hutto family prison does not exist for national security interests, or out of a sense of justice or patriotism; it’s driven by greed. Simple avarice. This contract personifies the corrupt business model of exploiting the very weakest among us to further enrich the most wealthy. At taxpayer expense.

Imprisoning innocent children of God, charged with no crime, is flat out un-American. It’s also un-Christian. (What WOULD Jesus do?)

I’ve previously told you a bit about my own son-in-law’s experience with ICE. That uncontrolled bureaucracy failed to follow their own rules, which they acknowledged, but then just decided to go ahead and punish the victim of their own sloth, anyway. ( I guess maybe the paperwork would have been too much trouble for them.) My family spent several terrified months as a result, during which ICE could have hauled him off, deported him, and/or imprisoned him in T Don Hutto. And it was THEIR error!

Maybe if he’d been a family member of someone on this dais, you’d be less complacent about this corruption for corporate profit. At taxpayer expense.

The fact is that there are humane, effective, and moral-- and far more “Republican”—i.e., “cost-effective,” alternatives to the T Don Hutto, for–profit- prison-for-non-criminal-immigrants. While you didn’t initiate this activity, your failure to require any of those alternatives makes you accomplices.

Well, here’s your chance for redemption: You can vote to remove us from this unholy union and notify the world that we do not put innocent people-- or children-- in prison in Williamson County, Texas.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Austin, Texas: Toy drive for families at Hutto

The University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic is collecting toys for children detained at Hutto, to be delivered close to the Christmas holiday.  Help make their Christmas merry and bright by donating toys made in the USA and  in their original packaging. Hutto could also use:

- books for kids of all ages as well as adults, especially those in Spanish, Arabic, Chaldean, Urdu, Portuguese, and Creole;

- CDs or DVDs (please, no movies rated above PG-13 or with sexual or violent scenes and no music with a parental advisory sticker);

- gently used coats, jackets, sweaters, and other warm clothes for kids or adults;

- phone cards.

Please bring any donations to the next Austin Immigrant Rights Council meeting (Dec. 18, 7-9 p.m. at Cristo Rey Church) OR contact Karla Vargas KMV229 at gmail dot com
 any time. 

Your gifts are deeply appreciated!