Thursday, October 29, 2015
By Michael Barajas

Eighteen women jailed at the T Don Hutto immigrant detention center in Taylor sent letters to activists this week announcing a hunger strike inside the embattled immigration lockup, which is run by a for-profit prison company.

According to activists with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based nonprofit that was sent the letters this week, there could be as many as 27 women starving themselves to protest the conditions of their confinement. Most of the women are asylum seekers who fled violence in their home countries, according to Grassroots.

The women raise a number of longstanding claims against federal immigration officials, the private-prison companies they contract with to jail undocumented immigrants, and even the immigration court system in general. In their letters, the women say they've been jailed in deplorable conditions while their legal cases drag on for months. Some say they haven't received adequate medical care. (Neither federal immigration officials nor the company that runs the facility has responded to requests for comment; we'll update if and when we hear back.)

One woman, who says her asylum claim was denied, wrote that because of her pending deportation she's been “condemned to a certain death.”

These types of claims are not new. The women write that they've been subjected to prolonged detention, a consequence, immigrant rights advocates say, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's needlessly high bar for release and backlogged immigration courts—the average wait time for someone with a case pending in Houston's immigration court, for example, is currently 703 days. Since, as the Atlantic recently put it, “migrants seeking asylum in this country must fit stipulations written in 1951, long before the rise of present-day organized crime,” deportation is a very real threat for people fleeing raging gang violence in Central America, even more so when you consider immigrants aren't guaranteed an attorney to help them navigate the country's labyrinthine system of immigration laws.

Hutto, which is run by the for-profit prison company Corrections Corporation of America, has its own controversial history. The facility, which opened in 2006, was once a detention center for immigrant families, not unlike the ones that CCA and the GEO Group, another private prison behemoth, opened in South Texas to detain immigrant families last year. The ACLU and the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic ultimately sued to stop family detention at Hutto after reports surfaced of children being forced to live in prison-like conditions (children even wore prison uniforms). Along with claims of inadequate treatment, families alleged detention staff separated kids from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly.

In its lawsuit against family detention at Hutto, the ACLU cited a landmark 1997 settlement with federal immigration authorities, called Flores, that prohibits ICE from keeping immigrant children in prison-like conditions. In 2009 settlement, ICE pulled kids out of Hutto and turned the privately-run lockup into an all-women facility. A judge recently ruled that federal detention centers CCA and GEO run in the remote South Texas towns of Dilley and Karnes violate Flores; child protection officials in Texas, however, may license those facilities as "family residential centers" in an apparent attempt to appease the judge and keep those lockups open.

The allegations by the women currently on a hunger strike at Hutto echo recent claims by women held at the Karnes family detention center run by GEO. In fact, since that facility opened last summer, the allegations have ranged from sexual misconduct by guards to detention staff denying children life-saving medical care. A paralegal was denied access to the facility earlier this year after she wrote about the conditions she saw at there.

Last year some 78 women at Karnes launched a five-day strike to demand, among other things, adequate medical care.