In its March 3, 2008 issue, The New Yorker magazine has a major feature story on the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas – one of two facilities in the country used to detain immigrant families. Hutto has been the focus of a major concerted effort to bring national attention to the nature of the Hutto prison, to conditions at the facility and to bring a legal challenge against Hutto. Barbara Hines and students in her immigration law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin have played a primary role in these efforts. Professor Hines, a noted immigration attorney, also worked in the seventies with The Rag, Austin’s influential underground newspaper whose spirit lives in The Rag Blog.
This feature, titled “The Lost Children” is now accessible on line.” For the first installment, gohere.
When the Yourdkhanis were sent to Hutto last winter, the facility had been open for nine months, but few Americans knew of its existence. Hutto is in Taylor, Texas, a town of seventeen thousand, forty miles northeast of Austin, with a lot of boarded-up businesses on its main streets. A National Guard recruiting station is on the eastern side of town; a place that offers concealed-weapons training is at die opposite end. Hutto has more than five hundred beds, though the population fluctuates, and the facility appears never to have been at full capacity, about half the detainees are children.
At the time the Yourdkhanis got there, many of the four hundred or so detainees were from Latin-American countries (these did not include Mexico, because Mexicans caught without documents are automatically sent home), and some of those were people who had come to the United States for economic reasons; that is, they were the kind of undocumented immigrants that most people probably think of when they hear of immigrants being rounded up somewhere in Texas. But a substantial number of the families were asylum seekers—people from Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Romania.
Like the Yourdkhanis, they were people who said that they had been persecuted in their home countries, and many of them had passed the first test for achieving asylum in the United States—a so-called “credible fear” interview. None had criminal records.
The Yourdkhanis, upon arriving at Hutto, saw a white concrete complex with slit-shaped windows, surrounded by double fencing topped by rolls of razor wire. A shadeless exercise yard was ringed by floodlights. Across the street was a railroad track where freight trains frequentiy idled, cutting off the facility from the rest of Taylor. Families were placed in former inmate cells. Each cell had a twin bed or a bunk bed with a thin mattress, a small metal or porcelain sink, and an exposed’ toilet. Generally, mothers and very young children stayed together in one cell, fathers in a separate cell, and older children in another. Husbands and wives were not allowed to visit each other s cells.
Masomeh told me, “For three days, Majid had a fever, and I wasn’t allowed to go to in and ask, ‘How are you?’” The cell doors were metal, arid each had a window two inches wide; the floor and walls were bare, except for a shatterproof acrylic mirror. Doors were to remain open during the day, but they were wired with laser-detection alarms that were triggered when anyone came or went at night. A 2007 report by two advocacy groups—the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children—noted that if a child sleeping in a separate cell woke up at night and went looking for his parents the alarm would sound, and only CCA staff members were allowed to respond.
The guards at Hutto conducted as many as seven head counts a day, during which all detainees, even toddlers, were supposed to remain in place, usually by their beds, for as long as it took to complete the count. In practice, this meant that detainees might be in their cells twelve hours a day. (When head counts were not taking place, detainees could assemble in the common area within their “pod” of cells, where there were couches and two televisions.)
Last March, an immigration lawyer named Griselda Ponce testified before the U.S. District Court in Austin about conditions at Hutto, and told of an occasion when the five- or six-year-old daughter of a woman she was interviewing had to go to the rest room. The captain on duty told the girl that she could not do so during a head count. Ponce said that the girl made “six or seven requests,” and was rebuffed each time; after about fifteen minutes, the girl “smelled of urine.”
No contact visits were allowed at Hutto—relatives had to sit behind Plexi-glas partitions and talk through phones in the old prison visiting room. In any case, few relatives visited, since Hutto was so far from where most of them lived. Deka Warsame, a Somali woman, was detained at Hutto for four months, along with her three children. Her mother and a sister lived in Columbus, Ohio, but she told her lawyer that, even if her family could have come to Texas, she would have been ashamed to have them see her looking like a criminal, “trapped behind Plexiglas.”
If detainees had an attorney, as Warsame did, the attorney could talk to them without a partition. During such conferences, children were required to stay by their parents’ side. The governing idea of Hutto was that detainees would constantly supervise their children—as a result, it wasn’t deemed a child-care facility, and required no relevant licensing. But this also meant that children had to be in the same room even when, say, their parents recounted stories of torture, rape, or domestic abuse. Barbara Hines, a law professor who runs an immigration clinic at the University of Texas, in Austin, and who was one of the first legal representatives to see detainees at Hutto, began bringing crayons and markers with her, hoping to distract the kids.
Children were regularly woken up at night by guards shining lights into their cells. They were roused each morning at five-thirty. Kids were not allowed to have stuffed animals, crayons, pencils, or pens in their cells. And they were not allowed to take the pictures they had made back to their cells and hang them up.
When Hutto opened as an immigration-detention center, children attended school there only one hour a day. Detainees, including children, wore green or blue prison-issue scrubs. In November, 2006, Krista Gregory, who lives in. Austin and works with church groups there, got a call from a couple of Hutto employees who, she says, were unhappy about the lack of supplies for child detainees. Gregory arranged for local churches to donate toys, baby blankets, and Bibles.
Staff members, who wore police-type uniforms, were mostly people who had backgrounds in corrections rather than in child welfare. Detainees said that when parents or children broke rules guards threatened them with separation from their children. Kevin Yourdkhani, at the prompting of one of Hines’s law students, wrote a brief description of one such occasion. “I was in my bed and my dad came to fix my bed,” he wrote. “When the police came and saw my dad in the room, he said, ‘If He comes and see my dad again in my room His going to put my mom in a seperate jail and my dad in a separate jail and me a foster lad.’ I cried and cried so much that I lost my energy. I went to sleep. I felt If I will be seprated I can never see my parents again, and I will get stepparents and they will hurt me or maybe they will kill me.”
Michelle Brane, an advocate with the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, managed to get a tour of Hutto in December, 2006. Describing the facility as “an incredibly punitive-feeling place,” she said, “People there told us that children were being punished for normal kid stuff—running around, making noise, tantrums. I have a two- and four-year-old at home, and I kept thinking, How would I manage in here keeping them under control? The shocking thing is that the people running it didn’t realize any of that. I think they thought it was a great place.”
Majid Yourdkhani told me that he and his wife felt as though they had “disappeared into a black hole. We’d ask the officers, What’s our future here? What’s going to happen to us? What do we need to do?’ We’d ask, and nobody could tell us.”
That feeling of having disappeared wasn’t entirely irrational. Getting information about Hutto—especially from the people who run it—is hard. Private prison companies are not subject to the same legal requirements as public prisons to provide incident reports on assaults, escapes, deaths, or rapes. It’s true that a company’s contract stipulates that it must report such incidents to the government agency for which it is a vender, and people seeking information about what goes on inside a private prison can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the government agency.
But this can he an exercise in frustration, as Judith Greene, a researcher who is a critic of private prisons, found out. Several years ago, she and a colleague, Joshua Miller, were doing research on a new prison in California City, California, that was to be operated by CCA. for the federal Bureau of Prisons. According to Greene, before awarding the contract the bureau had signalled that the government would not delegate to a private company the legal authority to use force against inmates. Greene and Miller wondered how this would work in practice. In a Freedom of Information Act request, Greene asked For documents that might shed light on this question.
Eventually, she recalls, she heard from the Bureau of Prisons that it was prepared to give her the information but had to get permission from CCA; a second letter informed her that CCA had said no, claiming that the information she sought about the use of force was a business secret. Greene told me, “Prisons in general are to a great extent secretive, isolated places, but if you’re dealing with private prisons you’ve got an additional layer to penetrate in order to find out essential facts and figures. And government agencies seem to give a lot of the decisionmaking to the private companies when it comes to what to reveal.” A bill now pending in Congress would, for the first time, make private prisons as accountable about their daily operations as public ones.