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“Deplorable”: Federal Judge Condemns For-Profit Texas Detention Centers for Immigrant Families

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Image Credit: GSR photo / Nuri Vallbona

In what could be a major victory for human rights advocates here in the United States, a federal judge has issued a harsh condemnation of the mass detention of immigrant women and children, calling conditions in the privately run prisons “deplorable.” The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gives the Obama administration 90 days either to release the more than 2,000 women and children being held in two Texas facilities or to show just cause to continue holding them. Immigration lawyers say the ruling has already had a “groundbreaking” impact as Texas judges have started ordering women and children’s release without bond, though many have been forced to wear electronic ankle monitors. Republicans are calling on the Obama administration to appeal the ruling. We speak to longtime immigration lawyer Barbara Hines, who represents many clients who are detained in the Karnes and Dilley detention centers in Texas.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn right now to the issue of immigration, what could be a major victory for human rights advocates here in the United States. A federal judge has issued a harsh condemnation of the mass detention of immigrant women and children, calling conditions in privately run facilities “deplorable.” The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gives the Obama administration 90 days to either release the more than 2,000 women and children being held in two Texas prisons or to show just cause to continue holding them. Immigration lawyers say the ruling has already had a “groundbreaking” impact as Texas judges have started ordering women and children’s release without bond, though many have been forced to wear electronic ankle monitors. Republicans are calling on the Obama administration to appeal the ruling. But at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Judiciary Committee—and House Judiciary Democrats said the practice must end. This is Congressmember Judy Chu, Democrat of California.

REP. JUDY CHU: I was one of the eight who visited the Karnes and Dilley detention center. And when I saw the Dilley detention center, I was so shocked at how isolated and barren it was. The first thing I thought was that they looked so much like the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. I saw the sterile barracks, the muddy dirt pathways, the mass institutionalized cafeteria, and the guards everywhere. And I was shocked and so very moved by the desperate pleas of hundreds of mothers who came out to say, “Release me, I am not a criminal,” and who scratched out picket signs that were written on their pillowcases and bedsheets.

I also remembered how the Japanese-American internment camps were pitched the American public as though the federal government was doing this for the safety of Japanese Americans. A similar argument has been made in the government’s case for detaining families, mainly from Central America fleeing unspeakable violence. The Department of Homeland Security repeatedly justified detaining families for deterrence reasons, to send a message that others weren’t welcome. Well, after much pressure and a federal court ruling that such a policy was unconstitutional, I am happy to say that DHS has finally reversed course and will no longer be using detention in that way. And just like we have to call the Japanese-American internment camps for what it was—a prison for people who were not criminals—we have to call the Karnes and Dilley detention center what they really are: prisons for people who are not criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those who testified Tuesday about conditions for women and children in detention was a recently released mother named Sonia Hernández. She explained how, after she came with her three children from El Salvador to escape violence and threats to their lives, she was detained 315 days, until June 9th of this year, at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, which she compared to a prison.

SONIA HERNÁNDEZ: When my children would get sick, like when they had a fever sometimes as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the only thing that I could do was to put them in the bath or in the shower in order to lower their fever. When they were hungry, I had to buy instant soup to be able to give them noodle soup. Sometimes immigration would see that I looked like I was doing really badly, like I wasn’t doing well, and they would tell me that I should go to the psychiatrist. And I would respond to them, “The psychiatrist isn’t going to resolve my problems. The only thing that will resolve my problems is to be freed from this place.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now from Washington, D.C., by two guests, including one who has inside knowledge of the conditions at Karnes. Olivia López is a longtime social worker who began working at Karnes last October but decided to leave her position in April after she says it was clear she had been hired to give the appearance of a well-supported medical unit. She says her efforts to improve documentation of the mothers’ care and concerns were repeatedly blocked.

We’re also joined by Barbara Hines, longtime immigration lawyer with many clients who are detained in family detention centers in Texas. She’s formerly with the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, now a fellow at the Emerson Collective.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! You both testified yesterday at the congressional hearing. Let’s begin with Barbara Hines. Talk about the significance of Judge Gee’s ruling. Did you expect this? And what is the scope of it?

BARBARA HINES: Well, I’m very pleased with Judge Gee’s ruling. I think what Judge Gee’s ruling does is confirm what advocates have been saying since last June and what members of Congress have been saying, is that running these detention camps is a violation of the Flores settlement, which was a settlement that was entered in 1996 regarding the treatment of children. And the most important pieces of Judge Gee’s ruling are, number one, that children cannot be housed in secured, unlicensed facilities. These are facilities that do not have a child welfare license from the state of Texas, and there is—or—and there is absolutely no independent oversight. The other thing that Judge Gee recognized is that children should be released—there’s a preference for release—family unity is very important, and that children should be released to their parents. And in this case, it would be parents who are detained with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the timeline here?

BARBARA HINES: Well, Judge Gee gave the government until August 3rd to respond and then a certain amount of time—I think it’s one week—for the government to respond. And she proposes that the government has an implementation program within 90 days, because, really, we have now been running illegal detention camps for more than one year. So I hope that the government and the Obama administration will as quickly as possible accede to Judge Gee’s ruling.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the ankle bracelets, Barbara Hines, that these women, if they are released, are forced to wear?


AMY GOODMAN: What are they? Who makes them?

BARBARA HINES: OK. So, first of all, they’re not really ankle bracelets. I think “bracelets” really doesn’t represent what these are. The women use the word ”grillete” in Spanish, which is a shackle. They are very cumbersome. The batteries don’t work. The cords are very, very short. Women are like almost chained to the wall trying to keep these things charged. The government, just like they have done since last summer, is they never have an individualized determination of flight risk. So, asylum seekers, there should be a presumption that they should be released. So, instead of saying no bond, what ICE is doing, in a coercive way, is telling women, “The only way you can get out is to have an ankle shackle put on your leg.”

I can give you an example of one of our clients. Her husband is a lawful permanent resident, so she has significant family ties in this country. She was released on an ankle shackle, and her leg swoll up because it was put on too tightly. Her daughter says that people look at her when they walk out, because normally the people that have these ankle monitors are prisoners. And these are women that have suffered such tremendous trauma. Their children have suffered such tremendous trauma. And without asking—making an individualized determination whether there are certainly other less intrusive methods for release of the women. So, I think they’re a significant problem and not the answer to how to deal with asylum seekers, mothers and children, fleeing violence in Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: The ankle shackles are made by what company?

BARBARA HINES: Well, they’re made by the BI company. And I just recently learned that the BI company was bought out by GEO, and GEO is the private prison company that runs Karnes. So, as you can see, this is—there’s a lot—this is intimately tied into the private prison industry.

AMY GOODMAN: So they profit either way, whether they’re in prison at Karnes—GEO runs the prison—or if they have these ankle shackles put on them.

BARBARA HINES: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from an interview with 19-year-old Lilian Oliva Bardales, who was detained at the detention center at Karnes County, Texas. She came to the U.S. with her four-year-old son seeking asylum from her abusive husband. After she was held for months and grew despondent, she tried to cut her wrists. In an interview with McClatchy, she described what happened when she was put on suicide watch.

LILIAN OLIVA BARDALES: [translated] When they said, “Remove your clothes to put this on, as a punishment,” they told me, “If you don’t undress, we’ll see who is in charge, you or us. We’re going to rip your clothes off.” So, since I was afraid of that, I had to take my clothes off. I cried. I didn’t eat. My life was very sad in that place. I felt like absolutely nothing in that country. And they didn’t give me the support when I needed it most.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lilian Oliva Bardales, formerly held at the GEO Group detention center in Karnes County. Not long after she attempted suicide, she was deported to her home country of Honduras. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into her case. How does something like this happen, Barbara Hines?

BARBARA HINES: Well, RAICES and the Karnes Pro Bono Project and other lawyers were actually involved in Lilian’s case. And we were desperately trying to get hold of her, so we could get papers signed, so that we could take over her case—she had been represented by another lawyer—and we were denied access to her.

This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Several weeks later, we represented another client, who also was put on the suicide watch. And what I just heard from Lillian is hauntingly familiar and so similar to what our second client spoke about when she was put into isolation and separated from her child, while the GEO—or, the medical unit watched her, their alleged suicide watch.

How does this happen? One of the reasons is because GEO is a for-profit prison, so you can cut corners or you want to cut corners whenever you can. It’s a coercive environment. It is a jail. This is not a family residential center. It’s a joke to call this a residential center. And we’ve had so many complaints, both at the Karnes facility, the Berks facility in Pennsylvania, and Dilley, over inadequate medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to immigrant rights attorney Barbara Hines. Usually, we speak to her in Austin. She’s in Washington, where she testified yesterday before Congress. We’re going to break, and when we come back, we are also joined by Olivia López, who is a longtime social worker. She’ll describe what she experienced when she went inside this detention center. Stay with us.

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