METRO | Alice Embree : Grassroots Leadership takes on the prison profiteers

The group helped end immigrant family detention at T. Don Hutto private prison and is challenging Travis County Sheriff Hamilton’s deportation policies.

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Grassroots Leadership is challenging Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton deportation policies.

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | June 22, 2014

AUSTIN — Grassroots Leadership says that Texas is “ground zero” with “more incarcerated people, immigration detention beds, and for-profit prisons than any other state.” That is why the national organization, founded in 1980 by activist and musician Si Kahn, moved its program operations to Austin in 2012.

I spoke with Executive Director Bob Libal about Grassroots Leadership and the group’s current organizing efforts in Travis County, Texas, and nationally. They have a solid track record of success. They helped shut down the notoriously bad Dawson State Jail, end the immigrant family detention at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, and stop the expansion of the private prison industry. They also have an ambitious agenda for the future.


Bob Libal got his start as a student organizer at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001. He was involved in two boycott campaigns that involved for-profit prisons. Campus organizers across the country pressured university administrations to sever contracts with food service behemoth Sodexho-Marriott.

The company, among other bad practices, was the largest investor in Correction Corporation of America, a private prison company. Boycott efforts also targeted Lehman Brothers for their private prison portfolio. The Sodexho-Marriott campaign met with success, forcing the corporation to sever their for-profit prison investments.

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CCA operates the T. Don Hutto Detention Center.

Private prisons became a burgeoning industry in the 90s — a marriage of convenience between the Drug War and the conservative desire to privatize every type of government function. Incarceration rates soared. After 9/11/2001, a new opportunity opened up for the companies profiting off imprisonment — immigrant detentions.

In Texas, the T. Don Hutto Detention Center near Taylor, Texas, was one of two places in the country that imprisoned immigrant women, children, and infants. In 2006, Grassroots Leadership drew media attention to this atrocity, building coalitions and organizing vigils, using the slogan, “No Child Left Behind Bars.” They combined their efforts with successful legal challenges, and in August 2009, after Obama became president, Homeland Security announced it would end its practice of family detention.

T. Don Hutto didn’t shut its doors, however. While it no longer houses children, it is filled with women, most of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S. Grassroots Leadership began coordinating a visitation program so that prisoners knew they were not forgotten and could rely on humanitarian advocates.

Private prisons have benefited from a perverse quota system built into Homeland Security authorization. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a requirement of filling 34,000 beds every day. Grassroots Leadership and other organizations are targeting this requirement at the national level. The quota works to the advantage of private prisons, but can affect judicial and immigration policy. Advocates sometimes see bonds set higher to keep beds full.

In Travis County, Grassroots Leadership is working with other groups including the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition and the Texas Civil Rights Project to challenge the Sheriff’s deportation practices. The campaign is called #19tooMany.

bob libal

Grassroots Leadership’s Bob Libal, shown at a protest over conditions at a federal immigrant detainee center. The GEO Group is one of the largest operators of private prisons.

Travis County has one of highest deportation rates in the U.S. with an average of 19 immigrants a week being deported. Sheriff Greg Hamilton, although not legally required to do so, cooperates with a Secure Communities (S-Comm) provision of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In their local organizing efforts they have been taking on the S-Comm issue through direct action, education and talks with elected officials.

The Austin City Council will be considering a resolution to end S-Comm cooperation next Thursday, June 26th, and County Judge Sam Biscoe will be proposing a similar resolution at the County Commissioners’ Court in the near future.

In May, sheriffs in 31 Oregon counties, 10 Colorado counties, and at least four counties in Washington ended their S-Comm programs, responding to concerns that ICE holds violate Constitutional rights and increase legal liability for local governments. Grassroots Leadership hopes that Travis County will join suit.

Private prisons are used extensively in Texas to house state prisoners, and the private prison industry wants to move into the arena of judicially mandated treatment facilities. By working in coalition with other groups, Grassroots Leadership had success during the 2013 legislative session closing two Texas for-profit prisons.

Grassroots Leadership has played an effective role in reform of criminal justice and immigrant detention. Their organizing has drawn attention to the fact that Texas has more prisoners and more for-profit prisons than any other state. Get involved by donating, becoming part of the visitation program, and signing the petition to end S-Comm in Travis County:

Let local officials know you think that Travis County should be immigrant friendly, not known as a county with one of the nation’s highest deportation rates.

[Alice Embree, a contributing editor to The Rag Blog, co-chair of the Friends of New Journalism, and a veteran of the original Rag, is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union. Read more articles by Alice Embree on The Rag Blog.]

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2 Responses to METRO | Alice Embree : Grassroots Leadership takes on the prison profiteers

  1. Fran Clark says:

    Excellent piece, Alice. Many people aren’t aware that this is happening in Travis Co. So good to call attention to it.

  2. Beverly Baker Moore says:

    Thanks, Alice. This is a national tragedy. We have situations, more and more involving youthful offenders, where their arrival in court is met with “we already have your cell waiting”….does not bode well for justice.

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