Inside Texas’ For-Profit Immigrant Prison: The Horrors of Hutto
By CINDY BERINGER
“Help us and ask questions,” read the note, secretly passed to a visitor from an immigrant child incarcerated in a Texas prison.
Based on their visits and interviews, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are calling for the immediate shutdown of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas.
Local activists have brought national and international attention on this facility, owned by the Corrections Corporation of American (CCA), which imprisons children and their families for profit under the same horrendous conditions as when it was a prison for adults.
Approximately 400 immigrants are incarcerated in Hutto, and at least half of the prisoners are children, according to Texans United for Families. Many of the immigrants–who are limited to countries other than Mexico–have made requests for asylum in the U.S. They await deportation hearings without any charges for months, and sometimes years.
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On March 6, the ACLU sued Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on behalf of 10 children in the Taylor jail. The ACLU based its lawsuit on a 1997 settlement protecting immigrant minors that resulted from a class-action suit accusing immigration officials of abusing minors. In its current initiative, the ACLU accuses Hutto of violating every provision of the 1997 settlement, including not giving children the right to wear their own clothes or have privacy.
The artwork of children tells no lies, and the artwork of children imprisoned at Hutto–posted on the ACLU Web site–is heartbreaking. A child sits atop a broken heart; a boy behind crudely drawn bars. The saddest of all–an American flag, with the words “HELP” scrawled between the two red stripes at the top.
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According to depositions filed with the ACLU lawsuit, the guards at Hutto threaten unruly children with separation from their mothers. But this is often an echo of the threats that drove these families to the U.S. in the first place, to seek asylum.
Raouitee Pamela Puran came from Guyana after she and her four-year-old daughter Wesleyann Emptage were threatened by the people who kidnapped and murdered her husband.
“Wesleyann has heard the guards threaten that children who act up will be separated from their parents,” Raouitee said in her deposition. “Almost everyone has heard this. Wesleyann is terrified that something like that could happen to her. She is afraid of the guards because she thinks they have the power to take me away from her.”
Sherona Verdieu, a 13-year-old from Haiti whose father was kidnapped and eventually killed when her mother could not pay a ransom, said she worried about crying–that this could be a cause for separating her from her mother.
Elsa Carbajal–a 24-year-old woman from Honduras who survived a brutal rape committed by the son of a police officer who continued to terrorize her afterward–said that her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter “think that they have done something wrong to be imprisoned in this jail.”
Angelina, Elsa’s daughter, suffered significant weight loss while in Hutto. She told her mother that she was always cold, but according to Elsa, she was yelled at for trying to take a blanket, while the guards wear gloves and heavy clothing.
The cruelty of the guards and prison officials that emerges from reading the lawsuit is hard to fathom.
Families are awakened at 5:30 or 5:45 a.m., and must be through bathing by 6 a.m. They are given 20 minutes to eat. “If we haven’t finished,” Elsa says, “the officials say they aren’t interested–the time to eat has finished.”
If the children haven’t finished, they have to throw away the food. “In some cases,” she says, “they have grabbed the food and thrown it in the trash in front of the children, and they cry because they say they are hungry.”
After the 20-minute meal, the prisoners return to their cells “to do nothing,” Elsa says. “They don’t allow us to sleep, only to sit and wait for the hours, days, months to pass.” The prisoners aren’t allowed to have books sent to them, and a great deal of the day is spent in senseless head counts to make sure no one has escaped.
Nine-year-old Kevin Yourdkhani, the son of Iranian-born parents who have sought asylum in Canada for several years, ended up in Hutto after the plane he and his family were traveling on was forced to make an emergency landing in Puerto Rico, where U.S. officials questioned their passports.
In his deposition, Kevin complained about the ridiculous excuse for an education system at Hutto. “Students” in the class of 25 ranged in age from six to 12 years old. “All we do is color and draw pictures and watch Spanish movies,” Kevin said. Kevin also said that his bed was small and cold, and stuck next to a smelly washroom. His mother had to use the toilet in front of him.
Once, when Kevin’s dad came in to fix the bed, guards told him that if his father was in his room again, both parents would be put in separate jails, and Kevin would be sent to a foster home. “I cried and cried,” he said. “I felt if I will be separated, I can never see my parents again, and I will get stepparents, and they will hurt me or maybe they will kill me.”
Read it here.