U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have updated their guidelines for family detention facilities, including the notorious T. Don Hutto detention center. It is currently very common for the children of detained undocumented immigrants who have committed no other crime to be held in detention along with their parents, even when better options are available. Families in detention generally receive few special privileges, which means that children who have also committed no crime are being held as and treated like prisoners. The new guidelines aim to resolve some of the current issues, but they fall short in many ways:
The first-ever federal standards for immigrant women and children held in confinement at facilities in Taylor and Pennsylvania are an improvement, but fall short of ensuring appropriate conditions for families who have committed no crimes, advocates for immigrants and refugees said Friday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Friday posted the 37 new standards on the agency’s Web site. They address education, discipline, use of force, medical care, strip searches, sexual assault and prevention, detainee counts and other issues.
The standards were approved Dec. 21 and are now in effect, said agency spokesman Carl Rusnok.
They were stipulated in a settlement agreement reached last August in federal lawsuits filed in Austin by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Texas Law School immigration clinic, Rusnok said.
Attorneys for several children confined at the T. Don Hutto residential facility in Taylor contended in the lawsuits that conditions there were inhumane and violated minimum standards for minors in immigration custody, set under a 1997 settlement approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys could not be reached for comment late Friday.
The standards also apply at another smaller facility for immigrant families in Berka, Pa.
“We commend the Department of Homeland Security for drafting standards that will improve these facilities,” said Michelle Brané with the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York. “However, we continue to be concerned with many provisions of the standards, particularly that they allow children to be disciplined based on adult prison protocol, including the use of restraints, steel batons and strip searches.”
The 512-bed Hutto facility, operated by Corrections Corp. of America and overseen by the federal agency, opened in May 2006 as one of two centers in the nation that confined families on noncriminal charges while they awaited decisions in asylum cases or final arrangements for deportation.
The facility generated controversy later that year, with critics saying that it was inappropriate for children. Opponents said there were better alternatives to confining families, such as holding them in nonpenal settings, as Congress also advocated.
You can read through the guidelines yourself here. The portions that I scanned actually looked like they forbid corporal punishment for children, but I’m very far from being a lawyer. It also wasn’t easy to find a whole lot on the issue — I came up with a handful of news articles and a handful of blog posts — but everything I did manage to find carried the same claim from more than one organization. Nothing I found included any indication that ICE has denied the charges, even those articles containing different statements from them about the guidelines and facilities. And the allegations become even easier to believe when looking at other changes made last year only thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU:
Conditions at Hutto have gradually and significantly improved as a result of the groundbreaking litigation. Children are no longer required to wear prison uniforms and are allowed much more time outdoors. Educational programming has expanded and guards have been instructed not to discipline children by threatening to separate them from their parents.
In addition to making those improvements permanent, the settlement also requires ICE to provide, among other things:
* allow children over the age of 12 to move freely about the facility
* provide a full-time, on-site pediatrician
* eliminate the count system which forces families to stay in their cells 12 hours a day
* install privacy curtains around toilets
* offer field trip opportunities to children
* supply more toys and age- and language-appropriate books
* improve the nutritional value of food
I find it hard to believe that a facility that would put children who have committed no crime in prison uniforms, detain children but not provide an on-site pediatrician, not provide privacy curtains around toilets for children and use threats of separation from one’s parents as a discipline method wouldn’t also be willing to use restraints on children and discipline them with steel battons and strip searches. It sounds to me like it’s not that much of a stretch.
What’s worst of all, of course, is that we allow undocumented immigrants whose only crime is being unable to afford the ludicrously expensive legal immigration process (and wait years to squeak by the quotas) to be treated in this way at all. The whole idea of being detained in the U.S. but not have U.S. prisoner rights because of citizenship status is quite grotesque. And indeed, it does legally allow this kind of behavior. In fact, as NICJ notes, these guidelines for humane treatment aren’t actually a part of U.S. law and are therefore largely unenforceable. We’re talking about the inhumane treatment of children by our government, but what about the equally inhuman treatment our government is giving adults?
I also have to say that as a woman, the punishment on that list that probably seems the least cruel strikes me the most. Certainly not to downplay the use of steel batons (is that possible?), but I find the idea of strip searches as discipline absolutely appalling. I quite honestly cannot think of how else to define that other than both sexual harassment and sexual assault. And what the hell else would the point be as a punishment, anyway, if not to humiliate and invade one’s bodily privacy and autonomy? It doesn’t really matter to me that the guards are supposedly the same sex as the prisoners during the searches. In fact, there have been many reported cases of female guards sexually assaulting female prisoners, and of course of male guards sexually assaulting male prisoners. Not that sexual assaults by guards of either gender don’t routinely occur and go ignored at Hutto. [What's that, a guard sexually assaulted a female inmate while in the cell with her child? Better deport her faster.]
Again, my searches found that little coverage has been given to this matter. If you have any additional or clarifying information, please do let us know. Particularly so if you know of any organizing taking place around this specific issue, actions we can take, etc. And if you can, pass the story along.