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The Long Road to T. Don Hutto

Oped by Commissioner Cook

  • 25 June 2018
  • Author: Doris Sanchez
  • Number of views: 4063

The following year, TDH reopened to house inmates displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and overflow prisoners from the Williamson County jail.

In 2005, the federal government announced their policy of “catch and release” of “illegal aliens” on U.S. soil would be ending and instead they would be housed in immigrant detention centers. No distinction was made between immigrants seeking economic improvements for themselves and their families, and those seeking asylum out of fear for their lives. TDH was available to reopen, which meant some local jobs.

In an agreement signed by former Williamson County Judge John Doerfler on Jan. 25, 2006, ICE contracted with Wilco to administer the contract turning TDH into an immigrant detention facility. ICE contracted with the county, and Wilco contracted with CoreCivic to run the detention center since the county had no desire to be in the prison business. ICE did not contract directly with CoreCivic, as is customary for some of these federal contracts, to avoid the bidding and review/awards process.   A packed courthouse of people waiting for the meeting to begin and the discussion of ending the TDH contract.

On April 18, 2006, Judge Doerfler signed another agreement between ICE and Wilco, allowing TDH to detain “alien families.” In May 2006, CoreCivic changed the name of the facility to the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center. TDH became the second facility in the country to house immigrant families and the first in U.S. history based on the penal system.  On January 29, 2008, Williamson County Judge Dan A. Gattis signed a modification to the agreement between ICE and Wilco allowing TDH to also detain “non-criminal alien females” on a separate side from the “alien families” at TDH.

After pressure from advocacy and human rights groups, CoreCivic announced in 2009 it would no longer detain families. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (ICE) and the county entered into a new contract, signed by Judge Dan Gattis on Jan. 26, 2010, changing TDH to a non-criminal women’s only detention center.

Wilco gained oversight rights to send a law enforcement officer at any time to TDH and observe the facility and the right to terminate the agreement for any reason with a 90-day written notice without financial penalty.

Williamson County was to receive $1 daily per inmate, or about $183,000 per year, and $6,000 monthly to cover overtime and other expenses by the Sheriff’s office to help monitor the facility. The agreement, amended in 2014, raised the monthly payment to $8,000.

Between May and August of 2010, county oversight led to the Williamson County District Attorney filing charges against a CoreCivic shuttle driver accused of groping the women. CoreCivic funded travel and other expenses for investigators from the Wilco Sheriff’s Office to visit former detainees who were freed or given asylum in other states. They obtained sufficient, credible evidence to arrest the driver and charge him with assault; however, he served only six months in prison.

With all the furor concerning alleged mistreatment of the women and especially that of Laura Monterrosa, I arranged to meet with her on March 1, 2018, through CoreCivic’s facility administrator under the direction of the regional ICE office in San Antonio. My plan was that there would be no cameras, microphones or crowds of protesters as my chosen interpreter and I slipped in the door. 

Upon arriving, we turned in anything that was not clothing and took our shoes off to be scrutinized for contraband.

At the administrator’s office, the local ICE agent announced that because of their policy and my status as a “stakeholder,” I could not see Laura, even though I was there to conduct oversight per the county’s contract with ICE.  I asked him on what planet that made sense but got no response. 

After making further inquiries from the ICE agent and medical director on policies and procedures (both tightlipped), I was offered a tour by the facility administrator. TDH wasn’t horrible, but it is a prison. ICE maintains a tight grip on everything, including CoreCivic employees.

TDH’s future depends on whether ICE contracts with CoreCivic, which would continue to operate TDH in the same manner as now, or with a CoreCivic competitor and, thereby, possibly ending CoreCivic’s immigrant detention at TDH.

Although I voted to end the contract, one of my biggest concerns is for the detainees who have been “adopted” by surrounding churches, civic organizations and individuals who provide anywhere from spiritual guidance to legal help. The women are less isolated because of the compassion of our central Texas citizens. Although I don’t anticipate it, if the facility closed, it will mean a loss of this support. 

TDH’s history has consisted of ongoing protests, vigils and lawsuits addressing claims of sexual and other abuses, along with numerous requests to end the contract, which incidentally protects the county against any lawsuits.

Although our contract termination with TDH becomes effective Jan. 31, 2019, detention centers probably aren’t going anywhere. CoreCivic and GEO Group, two private prison management companies, earned over $4 billion combined in 2017, according to Migration Information Source.

On May 11, 2017, Newsweek reported that GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of the GEO Group, donated $100,000 to the pro-Trump PAC Rebuilding America Now. Then, on November 1 —seven days before the presidential election— it gave another $125,000 to the organization.

The article further stated, “When Trump began sourcing donations for his inauguration festivities, the GEO Group, and Core Civic (The U.S.’ largest private-prisons contractor, the GEO Group is the second-largest) each gave $250,000.”

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