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DETENTION-HUTTO Aug-10-2009 (970 words) Backgrounder. With DETENTION of Aug. 7. With photos posted Aug. 6. xxxn

Immigrant family detention center has faced criticism since it opened

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

TAYLOR, Texas (CNS) -- The T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility came into existence in the small Texas town of Taylor in the 1990s as a privately owned, medium-security detention center under contract to various agencies such as the U.S. Marshals Service.

In 2006 Hutto was converted for use by immigrant families, with space for up to 512 people in bunk beds, with cells shared by parents and their minor children.

It quickly became the subject of a scathing report by the Women's Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service largely focused on conditions they said were inappropriate for children. A lawsuit followed soon after, leading to the release of families who were at Hutto at the time, and a court-supervised settlement agreement to improve the overall situation.

It proved to be far from the end of the criticisms of Hutto, as community, civil rights and religious groups kept up pressure for an end to family detention there.

On Aug. 6, the groups got their wish.

Three years after families were first placed at Hutto, John Morton, Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced that families will no longer be detained there. Instead, Morton said, families in immigration proceedings who are deemed likely to go into hiding before their court appointments will be detained in less penallike settings.

"Our detention is civil in nature," Morton said during a teleconference where he announced that and other changes to ICE detention practices. "It is not an exercise of penal or criminal incarceration power."

He said arrangements would begin immediately to move families currently detained at Hutto -- either to home monitoring or to a less prisonlike family detention center operated by Berks County, Pa., in an 80-bed former nursing home.

Many changes in operations at Hutto followed the 2007 settlement of the lawsuit; they included the removal of the barbed wire atop its multiple layers of fencing; an end to mandatory uniforms for all adults and children; a loosening of controls over when detainees were required to be in their rooms; the construction of shade tents over playground equipment; the addition of curtains around the previously unscreened toilets in each cell; and the expansion of the children's school day from one hour to five.

Msgr. Louis Pavlicek, pastor of St. Helen Parish in nearby Georgetown, is one of several Catholic priests who have provided pastoral care inside Hutto. He told Catholic News Service he's seen significant improvement at Hutto, from more respectful and friendly staff to some relaxation of the strict schedule everyone was expected to follow.

He said he believes most of the families being held at Hutto are working on getting documentation together that might help them remain legally in the United States. He said most seemed to be there for a few months.

A CNS request to visit inside Hutto was denied, with the explanation that ICE and the Corrections Corporation, which runs the center, have rarely allowed news media inside because it would be disruptive to the detainees. Questions to ICE about day-to-day life in Hutto also were not answered.

Msgr. Pavlicek said, for the most part, families in Hutto seem generally resigned to their circumstances, with young children happier than teens, who better understand the situation. And it beat the practice of separately detaining parents and their children that existed before Hutto and the Pennsylvania family detention center opened, he said.

"Overall, I think it's better than splitting up families," he said.

Even with those changes, critics of Hutto didn't let up, saying children simply should not be detained.

At a June 20 rally outside the detention center, participants from across Texas called for Hutto to be closed and its detainees released to more normal family living conditions.

"Schools not jails," "Free the Children," "Immigration is not a crime," and "Shut down T. Don Hutto" read signs and T-shirts among the 100 or so people braving 100-degree midafternoon sun. For a while during the hours-long rally, detained children could be seen from a distance, playing soccer on a playground behind multiple layers of fencing.

Hutto security officers monitored the rally closely, filming the proceedings and participants and admonishing anyone who strayed onto the Corrections Corporation property in search of shade under a row of saplings.

David Atwood of Pax Christi Texas, a Catholic peace and justice organization, told CNS at the rally that "incarcerating children who have done nothing wrong shows how far our nation has fallen in recent years in terms of respecting basic human rights."

He cited a 2003 joint statement of U.S. and Mexican bishops, "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope," saying "migrants without documentation should not be treated like criminals" and that children deserve special protection.

"Clearly the incarceration of women and children in the Hutto facility is contrary to what the Catholic bishops have stated in this document," Atwood said.

In a July 2 report on how Hutto was meeting the lawsuit settlement agreement, its court-appointed monitor took the Corrections Corporation and ICE to task for continued shortcomings and flawed thinking about keeping children in a former medium security prison.

U.S. Magistrate Andrew W. Austin noted many improvements at Hutto, including the addition of counseling services and regular field trips for the children.

However, Austin's report also included comments such as: "It seems fundamentally wrong to house children and their noncriminal parents this way. We can do better."

An Amnesty International report, released in March and titled "Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA," said the average cost of immigrant detention is $95 per person per day. Alternatives such as monitoring by electronic ankle bracelets or phone reporting cost as little as $12 a day. It said 91 percent of people monitored by those means report for their immigration court proceedings.


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