Listen to a narrated version of this essay:
The T. Don Hutto Residential Center is a 512-bed institution that has operated in Taylor, Texas, since the mid-1990s. The word “residential” in its name and the bright pink walls inside suggest a hospitable, domestic space. The layers of chainlink fence, heavy steel doors, and slim window slits suggest something far more sinister. Although the Hutto Center has little of the mystique of America’s more infamous prisons, like Alcatraz or Rikers Island, today it is at the center of an archipelago of private prison and detention facilities run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
“Hospitable” is not a word detainees have used to describe the Hutto Center. Consider the case of three-year-old Antony Nartatez and his mother, who were kept in prisonlike conditions at Hutto, even though U.S. officials had already determined that the two would likely be persecuted if they returned to their native Guatemala. Egle Baubonyte, a 15-year-old daughter of a detained Lithuanian married to a U.S. citizen, complained of “harsh” rules at Hutto and “being closed in … one room with the same people every day” with “nothing to do.” Laura Monterrosa, a 23-year-old Salvadoran woman seeking asylum, said that a Hutto guard sexually assaulted her; she subsequently attempted suicide, and detention officials put her in solitary confinement. Martha Gonzalez said that she was forced to clean and maintain the facility, sometimes for no pay, but never for more than a dollar or two a day.
These stories might sound like snippets from last summer’s news cycle, which included reports of striking prisoners across the United States protesting, in part, the minimal wages they earn (if they earn any wages at all), and horrific tales of young children separated from their immigrant parents at U.S. borders. But Antony’s and Egle’s complaints date to the mid-2000s. Only Laura’s and Martha’s stories are from this year. Conditions in detention centers such as Hutto may have deteriorated recently, but similar problems have existed for far longer than recent reports acknowledge.
Although it now houses immigrants, Hutto, over the course of its history, has also been used as a prison—actively blurring the line between detainment and incarceration. According to the Supreme Court, detention of immigrants should not be punitive and should be limited: just long enough for officials to assess their legal right to remain in the country. Unlike a criminal defendant awaiting trial, an immigrant detainee awaiting deportation proceedings (or an asylum hearing) has not necessarily been accused of committing a crime; simply being present in the United States without documentation is not a criminal act.
Likewise, immigrant detainees have none of the basic procedural rights—to a lawyer, to confront witnesses, or to a public, speedy jury trial—that protect accused criminals from unjust or excessive punishment. Despite the legal assumption that immigrant detainees are not being punished, detention centers dole out harsh—and often illegal—treatment to legally innocent people. Beatings and other forms of assault, the separation of children from their families, sexual violence against women, and denial of medical care have persisted for years in both CCA-run private prisons and immigration detention centers. This summer, dozens of people at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington—operated by CCA’s major competitor in providing private detention beds, GEO Group—joined the nationwide prison strike by taking part in hunger strikes and work stoppages. The incarcerated were protesting their harsh punishment; the detained were objecting to being punished at all.
The contracts, corporate relationships, and procedures that CCA and GEO Group cultivated in running private prisons were all too easy to duplicate in private detention centers—never mind that the stated purposes of these two operations are fundamentally different. When we privatize functions the government has traditionally undertaken, such as incarceration and detention, corporations then set the rules governing human interaction, using profit rather than legal or human rights standards as their guidelines.
As it turns out, private detention, with its lack of oversight and limited due process protections, has been even more profitable than private incarceration. Today, fewer than 10 percent of all prisoners in the United States are held in private facilities, versus nearly three-quarters of all immigrant detainees. One hundred percent of all prisoners and detainees, however, are subject to at least some fees to receive basic services like health care, food, and communication. And in the case of telecommunications, the enormous cost to both prisoners and detainees further blurs the line between preventive detainment and punitive incarceration. Limiting prisoners’ contact with the outside world cuts short their odds of functioning successfully in that world upon release. Doing the same for detainees cuts off their chances at a better life—all the while treating them like they’ve been convicted of a crime.
The stories of the Hutto detainees first became generally known through handwritten letters and legal complaints. Because detainees often have limited, if any, access to cellphones, the Internet, or even a landline, letters are their primary form of communication.
This lack of contact with those beyond prison walls affects not only detainees’ emotional health and relationships, but also their ability to mount asylum cases. In 2013, the ACLU brought a class-action lawsuit in California alleging that immigrant detainees’ severely limited access to phone calls undermined or eliminated their right to due process. Moreover, when detainees did get access to a phone, they faced excessive fees: a 10-minute call within the state cost between $3.75 and $9.50. In a 2016 settlement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) promised to expand access to phones, permit longer calls (up to 60 minutes), cover the costs of calls for detainees who could not afford the fees, and provide better oversight of telephone services to detainees nationally. In guaranteeing these communication rights to immigrants, the settlement implicitly acknowledged that immigration detention is intended only to prevent flight, not to strip rights from detainees or to punish them.
But in Texas, in 2018, detainees reported that calls still cost 10 to 25 cents per minute—which may sound reasonable, compared with the 37 to 95 cents previously charged in California, until you consider that detainees have virtually no income. As one immigrant, known only as “M.G.U.,” explained in a federal court filing about her lack of contact with her children, “calls are very expensive so I am only able to call when I have money.”
As former Hutto detainee Martha Gonzalez’s class-action lawsuit alleged in February 2018, CCA is essentially operating a “forced labor camp” at Hutto, where detainees are coerced to “clean, maintain, and operate” facilities, sometimes for no money, and never for compensation of more than $1 or $2 per day. A 30-minute phone call, then, could exceed what a detainee might earn in a week.
Still, this is a bargain compared with the cost of calls from most state and federal prisons. Until 2013, the average cost of a 15-minute call from a U.S. prison was $15 to $17—as much as 30 times the cost of comparable calls between nonincarcerated people. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed caps on interstate, long-distance calling rates, reducing the average cost of a 15-minute phone call to $2 or $3. The regulations also stipulated that the charges could not include commissions and bonuses to prison systems. But these between-state regulations protected only prisoners calling family members out of state—meaning mostly federal prisoners, who constitute only 10 percent of the more than 2.4 million people in American prisons. The rest still face unregulated fees for making in-state calls, alongside other, often profitable restrictions on communicating with loved ones. For instance, at the Jefferson Parish jail outside New Orleans, friends and family of prisoners are now regularly denied in-person visits. Instead, they may visit by video, which costs $12.99 per 20-minute call. That’s more than business travelers pay for an hour of WiFi on an airplane.
Although prisoners and immigrant detainees are lucky if they can afford to call their families, companies such as CCA (along with communication service providers) can earn thousands of dollars in profits for each person detained. Since 2009, ICE has paid CCA at least $95.20 per bed per day to operate the Hutto Center. This amounts to almost $18 million per year in fees from Hutto alone (a previous contract in 2006 was for $33.6 million per year)—a big change from 2004, when CCA operated Hutto as a medium-security prison and almost abandoned the facility as unprofitable because of “low inmate population demands in the facility’s region.”
Today, CCA operates dozens of private prisons and private immigration detention centers with tens of thousands of individual beds across the United States. The corporation earns hundreds of millions in annual profits. Meanwhile, the government pays more than $3 billion annually to detain an estimated 40,500 immigrants.
Recent family separations and detentions, even more extreme than what Antony Nartatez and Egle Baubonyte experienced at the Hutto Center in the mid-2000s, have been especially profitable. In 2016, CCA and GEO Group reported first-quarter revenue increases of five and 17 percent, respectively, from the first quarter of the previous year. For the same year, GEO Group’s gross profit margin (that is, the difference between the actual costs of the services provided and what is charged to the government) was 24 percent on $2.18 billion in revenues; CCA’s was 31 percent on $1.85 billion. As CCA Chief Executive Officer Damon Hininger said in a press release, this financial growth was attributed to “stronger than anticipated demand from our federal partners,” especially demand for family detention.
But how did CCA and GEO Group expand their portfolio of government contracts for private prisons to include private immigrant detention centers? The Hutto Center, named after CCA’s founding director, is in fact just a two-hour drive from where the whole corporate enterprise of profiting from immigration detention started.
Before CCA acquired the land on which to build the Hutto Center, the company ran a makeshift detention center out of leased space in the Olympic Motel, outside Houston. This facility, which opened in January 1984, was the site of the first corporate-federal collaboration to house immigrant detainees.
Terrell Don Hutto, who had cofounded CCA just one year earlier, recalled that as detainees arrived at the Olympic Motel, he rushed off to the local Walmart, where he used his personal credit card to buy toiletries for them. In 2010, Hutto said, “We met the deadline, the detainees arrived, and a new relationship was forged between government and the private sector.” At one point, the CCA website proudly proclaimed that this first private federal detention center was “a start-up before start-ups were fashionable.”
By 1984, Hutto already had decades of experience in corrections. A native of Texas, he began his prison career as an educator, but he quickly moved into management. He became the warden, in 1967, of the sprawling Ramsey prison plantation in Texas, where prisoners performed compulsory labor, as detailed in investigative journalist Shane Bauer’s new book, American Prison. Hutto next took a job as the Arkansas commissioner of corrections, overseeing the state’s legally embattled prison system throughout the 1970s.
In the 1960s, litigation on behalf of Arkansas inmates was heard in federal court. The case record included details of forced labor, punitive rape, and electric shocks on the state’s prison plantations. The Tucker Unit, one such prison plantation, even bequeathed its name to a torture device: the “Tucker” telephone, a set of wires attached to a prisoner’s big toe and his genitals, then used to administer punitive shocks. In reviewing the case, U.S. District Court Judge J. Smith Henley described incarceration in Arkansas as “a banishment from civilized society to a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world.” Hutto arrived in Arkansas in the 1970s, landing in the midst of the ongoing litigation, which made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978. In Hutto v. Finney, the Court considered whether the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment) could be applied to protect prisoners from abusive conditions in an entire state prison system. The Court’s review of Judge Henley’s decision ultimately held, matter-of-factly, that his “characterization was amply supported by the evidence.” It found prison conditions to be unconstitutional.
As head of the state prison system of Arkansas, Hutto oversaw media relations, honing skills he would later deploy with finesse in the private sector. And he ultimately became an integral part of an industry that has largely avoided the kind of judicial oversight exemplified by the Hutto v. Finney litigation, thanks to corporate innovations like opaque pass-through contracts (noncompetitive agreements between local governments, ICE, and private companies), prohibition of public oversight of private prison facilities, and kickbacks to local governments, like $1 per day per bed fees.
Hutto was not just a skilled businessman and a good politician; he also had a knack for moving on at just the right time. By the time the Hutto lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, he had taken over the Virginia prison system, where he advocated for significant sentencing reform to relieve overcrowded prisons and to avoid the kind of negative press and invasive litigation that Arkansas had faced. Virginia legislators, however, continued building more prisons and imposing longer sentences.
Again, Hutto moved on. In 1983, he became the director of Corrections Corporation of America, which promised to run prisons more cheaply and efficiently than the government. CCA would become one corporation among many to thrive in a decade when privatization began encroaching on America’s transportation, housing, welfare, education, and defense sectors. One of Hutto’s two partners, Thomas Beasley, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, described the initial process of selling prison privatization to government officials: “Their first impulse is to say only the government can do it, because only the government’s ever done it. But their second reaction is that the government can’t do anything very well.” Then, “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”
Hutto and his partners focused not only on the supply side, by efficiently running prison facilities, but also on the demand side, by cultivating the need for them. Between the 1980s and the 2000s, they worked closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit conglomerate of public and corporate representatives that crafts model legislation and lobbies for conservative legislative initiatives—such as increased criminal sentences (through mandatory minimums like the 1995 Truth in Sentencing Act) and immigration penalties (like Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070, passed in 2010, which permits police to demand immigration documents on sight, and which tried to criminalize the act of not carrying documentation, a provision ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court). CCA was represented on a criminal justice task force within ALEC (though CCA has repeatedly said it did not vote or comment on proposed ALEC legislation). ALEC also fought to make prison labor more profitable through the 1995 Prison Industries Act, which encourages private corporations to use prison labor and allows prisons to deduct “room and board” expenses from incarcerated workers’ wages.
CCA’s leaders understood that they needed to keep an eye on federal government policy and identify, create, and defend regulatory gaps—but not too transparently. In 2010, CCA officials publicly distanced themselves from their controversial association with ALEC. Nonetheless, they continued to pursue a clear business plan to increase demand for their services. And they succeeded.
Between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10.5 million on immigration policy lobbying. In 2009, the Senate Appropriations Committee introduced a clause in the Appropriations Act of 2010, later dubbed the “detention bed quota,” to require the Department of Homeland Security to maintain at least 33,400 detention beds at all times. (It’s now 40,520.) Most of these beds would be privatized, managed by CCA and GEO Group. By 2017, 71 percent of detained immigrants were in private facilities.
The detention bed quota marked a turning point in CCA’s and GEO Group’s political influence. Especially after the Obama administration moved to limit federal government contracts to operate private prisons (but not contracts to operate private detention centers), these corporations redoubled their investments in Obama’s opponents. The companies poured millions of dollars into supporting the political campaigns of Donald Trump and his allies. Bloomberg noted the obvious: private- prison providers would “cash in” on Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. And they have, as indicated by their soaring stock prices alone. (Moreover, Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wasted no time rescinding the Obama-era private-prison restrictions.) “Zero tolerance” generates demand not only for more beds, but also for specific categories of bed space—for kids, for moms, for dads. The occupants of those beds, in turn, are captive customers, desperate to pay any price for basic services like a phone call.
Calls, however, are not part of CCA’s fee-and-profit structure. An entirely separate industry works with both immigration detention facilities and prisons to provide phone services—along with other basic services like food and health care.
Corporate interests in detention and incarceration go beyond those doing the actual detaining, extending to the companies that provide food services (Aramark), health-care services (Corizon Health), and communication services (Securus Technologies and GTL). The cost to corporations of providing communication services is significantly lower than that of providing food or health care, so the prices they charge for a phone call show just how high the profit margins—and motives—are. Securus had an estimated gross profit margin of 54 percent in 2016—about twice that of GEO Group and CCA. Meanwhile, families of prisoners in the United States spend roughly $3 billion per year on products and services provided by companies like Aramark, Corizon, and Securus. There are no comparable estimates for the costs borne by families of immigrant detainees.
These service companies contract directly with both private providers and publicly operated county, state, and federal prison systems, further blurring the line between detention and prison, as well as that between public and private incarceration. Securus and GTL, for instance, do business with dozens of publicly operated state prison systems and dozens more local jails for phone services. These contracts are exclusive: a single service provider monopolizes all calls from any given jail or detention center, and often from entire state prison systems.
The FCC exists to regulate the fair provision of communication services, to “promot[e] competition,” and to prevent exactly the kinds of monopolistic contracts that define the Securus and GTL business models. Yet the prison phone service industry remained oddly unregulated for decades, until 2013, when the FCC first passed prison phone rate caps.
In the 1970s, when phone companies first installed pay phones in prisons across the United States, the rates were the same as anywhere else. The new phones reflected a move to improve prison conditions and a growing consensus that prisoners who could communicate with loved ones were likelier to be rehabilitated. Exorbitant calling rates would have violated both principles.
But in 1984, when the AT&T monopoly over the U.S. telephone industry disintegrated, new phone companies scrambled to establish new markets. U.S. prison and jail populations were skyrocketing in the 1980s, so prisons presented an obvious niche market. New monopolies mushroomed. But prison systems selecting phone service providers sought out the most expensive contracts possible so that administrators and governments could share in the profits. Prisoners, however, had no choice about which phone service providers to use.
Today, all calls from jails and prisons in the United States are charged directly to the person receiving the call or debited from a prisoner’s prepaid account. Like prisoners themselves, prisoners’ families must use the company providing phone service, paying hundreds of dollars a year for a few short calls a month. Meanwhile, private phone service providers share “kickbacks,” regularly in the millions annually, with state and local governments.
A lawyer for Securus Technologies objected in The Washington Post to the term kickback, arguing that prison officials are just “complying with state law” and “trying to fund overtaxed jails” through these contracts. Kickback, however, is an accurate description for the commissions that counties and states receive when they sign contracts with prison phone service providers. Contra Costa County in California received a $75,000 bonus, for example, after signing an exclusive contract with GTL, followed by commissions as high as 57 percent on phone calls—amounting to more than $650,000 in payments, in one year, from one detention facility. Likewise, Georgia’s contract with Securus provides a 58.5 to 62 percent commission on in-state calls from its prisons: a profit of $7.8 million in 2017. Kentucky’s $5.70 price tag for a 15-minute phone call—or a flat $9.99 for a collect call to a cell phone—puts it last in the nation for affordability. Kentucky also contracts with Securus and received a $2.79 million commission last year (54 percent).
Persistent investigative reporting has uncovered details of contracts like these, but thousands of other deals exist for county, state, and federal facilities across the country. Mobilizing against so many hidden, variable, and profitable contracts is nearly impossible. But in 2003, Martha Wright-Reed, a nurse then in her 70s, filed a petition with the FCC documenting the rising cost of a few phone calls per month with her incarcerated grandson: close to $200 per month. Wright-Reed’s grandson said that sometimes he would place a collect call just so his grandmother could hear his voice, even if he knew she could not afford to accept it. Dozens of other families joined the petition, describing the unaffordable cost of even saying “hello” or “I love you.”
Wright-Reed’s petition resulted, a decade later, in the 2013 caps that the FCC passed on interstate, long-distance calling rates. In response, industry leaders like Securus and GTL found ways to work around the regulations—primarily by rebranding. Echoing the Securus lawyer’s objection to the term kickback, prison phone service providers relabeled “connection fees” as “first minute fees,” which allowed them to continue to bill extra costs to prisoners, detainees, and their families.
Rebranding is a core strategy of the broader industry of prison profiteering: CCA changed its name to CoreCivic to avoid further scrutiny. In 2016, a Mother Jones investigation by Shane Bauer of the corporation’s prison officer training and operational practices, as well as a Department of Justice pledge to cancel all federal government contracts for privately operated prisons, caused CCA’s stock to plummet. The corporation hired a public relations firm to help it rebrand as a multipurpose, community-oriented service provider, with a new name. CoreCivic conveniently echoed the common-law trademarked name of a national nonprofit advocating for the rights of immigrant detainees: CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement).
And like CoreCivic, Securus and GTL did more than rebrand their services. They explored new ways to monopolize profits, like providing video visitation services with exclusive contracts often requiring the elimination of in-person visits. (Seventy-four percent of facilities that implement video calling end up reducing or eliminating in-person visits entirely.) Other companies are also seeking to provide Internet access to prisoners. The same rehabilitative principles supporting prison pay phones in the 1970s apply to the Internet today, and major state prison systems, like those in New York and Colorado, have initiated contracts to provide prisoners with supposedly free tablets. The tablets allow prisoners to read e-books, email family members, and listen to music. Speaking to CNN, prison officials further touted the devices for making it easier for prisoners to “access free educational material” and “file grievances.” But how and why would any company provide thousands of tablets (51,000 in New York alone) to prisoners at no cost?
One company’s name in particular turns up in state after state: JPay, a subsidiary of Securus. JPay’s website says it is keeping prisoners connected with their communities. But the tablets in New York are also part of a “pilot electronic financial system designed to let family and friends send money to people in prison more easily.” JPay collects fees for money transfers—for a handsome profit.
The tablets are designed to be “secure,” meaning easy for corrections officials to monitor on an embedded network, similar to the way the Internet is cordoned off on public school computers. As with pay phones, this added feature is part of the justification for both the specialized services of JPay and the extra costs prisoners bear to use them. And as with pay phones, security problems persist: compromised personal information, the transfer of illegal messages and money, and failures of the embedded network. Prisoners bear the costs of these breaches.
For instance, Colorado was one of the first states to provide tablets to prisoners—donated by GTL—and then became one of the first to take them back, en masse, following an unspecified security breach. Prisoners, who had purchased digital songs and books and were charged for each email sent, lost the material on their tablets that they had paid for. In Florida, the Department of Corrections switched to JPay from an exclusive state contract with Access Corrections. Prisoners had to return all Access Corrections products, losing 6.7 million songs they had purchased and downloaded—an estimated $11.3 million worth of music.
The security breaches notwithstanding, both JPay and GTL continue to maintain exclusive contracts with state prison systems to provide tablets, with the claim that they enhance safety. Pennsylvania prison officials, for instance, announced an unprecedentedly restrictive policy in September: no outside paper products of any kind may enter state prisons (supposedly to prevent drug smuggling). Another Florida company called Smart Communications is now scanning all incoming mail and providing digital copies to prisoners (except legal mail, which is photocopied in-house). The cost to taxpayers: at least $376,000 per month, or more than $4 million per year (and weeks-long delays for prisoners waiting to receive their mail). Prisoners who wish to read books may do so if they pay $147 to purchase a tablet from GTL. The tablet provides access to 8,500 digital books, ranging in cost from $2.99 to $24.99. One Philadelphia Inquirer headline described the selections on the digital book list as titles “that are available for free, that nobody wants anyway.”
Pennsylvania ACLU lawyers allege that some of the new policies violate prisoners’ First Amendment rights. Existing law, however, is not in their favor. In Beard v. Banks, in 2006, the Supreme Court upheld an even more restrictive Pennsylvania paper policy that prevented prisoners in solitary confinement from receiving nonreligious or nonlegal reading materials from outside of prison (officials said it was to prevent fires). Courts have deferred to prison officials’ claims about security breaches, and regulatory agencies have been willing to pass on the expensive price tag to prisoners, their families, and taxpayers.
Despite years of petitioning the FCC, most prisoners’ families are still subject to high within-state calling rates. The short-lived caps placed on the per-minute cost of all calls originating in any U.S. prison or jail, which the FCC passed in 2015, were soon undone when Ajit Pai became chairman under President Trump. By the time a federal court in Washington, D.C., considered the prison phone industry’s objection to the 2015 within-state caps, the FCC had already withdrawn support of its own regulation. The court let the 2013 between-state regulations stand but struck down the broader 2015 within-state regulations.
Martha Wright-Reed’s 2003 petition, and the subsequent attempt to institute FCC regulations on the prison phone industry, exemplifies the Herculean challenge of individual (or even class-action) resistance to corporate behemoths like Securus, JPay, and GTL. The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU will certainly face off against a similar mix of regulatory and corporate resistance in its legal attempt to expand Pennsylvania prisoners’ access to paper, whether in the form of letters or books.
Often reform happens only at the mercy of prison officials who tire of public outcry. In November, for instance, Pennsylvania state officials responded to the many legal and media objections to their new no-paper policy with a minor modification: prisoners may receive books ordered through a single, centralized processing center (but still not letters). Even so, local resistance persists against the multiple forms of privatization that limit individual rights and sever family ties, for prisoners and immigrant detainees alike. Increasingly, the only recourse people have against these corporate conglomerates—which have successfully opposed, avoided, and resisted multiple creative attempts at regulatory oversight—is to fight them one institution at a time. Indeed, the Hutto Residential Center has been an epicenter of this resistance since the mid-2000s.
The Hutto Center is just under an hour’s drive from Austin, but those 33 miles represent a political gulf—from a diverse, urban, liberal college area to a predominantly white, suburban, conservative area. The facility’s proximity to Austin, however, has kept it under close scrutiny from some local activists, especially the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which campaigns against mass incarceration and the for-profit prison industry. Its advocates were among the first to encounter the handwritten stories of abuse at Hutto, like those of Egle, Laura, Martha, and Antony and his mother. These accounts proliferated in 2006, when CCA converted what had been a medium-security prison in Taylor, Texas, into a family immigration detention center, thanks to a $33.6 million annual contract with ICE.
Williamson County, home to the Hutto Center, facilitated the deal. The county commission approved one contract with ICE to detain immigrants and one with CCA to run the detention center. These pass-through contracts were the subject of an investigative report copublished last June by Newsweek and Capital & Main, which described them as both “opaque” and “noncompetitive.” (The pass-through contract itself was made publicly available only as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.) Williamson County would earn $1 per immigrant detained per day (roughly $15,000 per month, or more than $180,000 per year), plus $6,000 to $8,000 per month in fees to cover county inspectors’ time—a fraction of CCA’s current $18 million annual take-home from the facility, but not insignificant for a small, suburban county government.
Even after Grassroots Leadership first exposed family separation at the Hutto Center in 2006, and even after a 2007 scandal in which ICE officials arrested 10 Hutto employees who were themselves undocumented immigrants, the Williamson County commissioners overwhelmingly supported continuing their relationships with CCA and ICE. Then, in the summer of 2018, the public relations problem of separating innocent children from their migrant parents resurfaced: local papers reported an estimated 40 mothers detained at the Hutto Center had been separated from their young children, who were being held elsewhere. Grassroots Leadership organized protests. When the question of the Hutto Center appeared yet again on a Williamson County commissioners’ agenda, on June 26, 2018, four of five commissioners supported the motion to terminate the pass-through contracts. After the vote, the courtroom audience erupted in applause. The Texas Observer reported that more than 100 activists had rallied in favor of the vote outside the courthouse, and the courtroom itself was “packed with demonstrators.”
The commissioners framed the vote as simple “county business” to refocus their time on local priorities. But some activists interpreted their action as a condemnation of the private facility itself. “I think as we learn more and more about everything that happens at Hutto, from sexual abuse to mothers [being] separated, community members don’t want to see this prison existing in Taylor anymore,” said Claudia Munoz, a member of Grassroots Leadership.
However, the vote was more symbolic than practical. As one county commissioner noted, “The facility does not have to close if we terminate; the government could keep it running under emergency edict.” A Fox subsidiary in Austin, reporting on the vote, said that federal authorities could either contract directly with CCA to run the facility, or set up a new pass-through agreement with a different local entity, such as the city of Taylor. By August, ICE had posted a new contract request for a facility in the same area: “Detention Services 500 Bed Females.”
How do we fix the problem of private prisons and end the encroachment of prisonlike punishment in immigration detention centers? Even had they survived, Obama-era prohibitions against privatizing federal prisons were only a Band-Aid: just 10 percent of all prisoners are in federal facilities. FCC regulations, like those imposed in 2013 and 2015, are too easy for corporations to work around or for corporate-minded FCC commisioners to undo. And the Williamson County commissioners’ decision to end the contract with CCA didn’t shutter the Hutto Center. Still, if enough localities close their doors to these corporations, the corporations will have nowhere left to go.
In Texas, hope for reform of prison phone rates lives on at the state level, too. Two months after the Williamson County commissioners’ decision, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, a nine-member, governor-appointed body that oversees the state prison system, voted to approve a new prison phone contract much more favorable to prisoners and their families. Even though calls were capped at 20 minutes, they cost about $5. Forty percent of the revenue from these calls went to the state—a total of almost $20 million in 2017 alone. With the new contract, calls will now cost only 6 cents per minute and be permitted to last 30 minutes, so families can expect to pay closer to $2 per call. The contract also provides for the installation of new video visitation hardware in 12 state facilities. Unlike in Jefferson Parish, however, officials in Texas negotiated a contract that does not preclude in-person visits.
Other states could follow Texas’s lead and pass their own, state-level regulations to govern prison phone service contracts and providers, but these regulations would be unlikely to apply to two major categories of institutions: private prisons and federal immigration detention centers (whether public or private). Regulation of these kinds of facilities generally requires persistent public oversight and advocacy by groups like Grassroots Leadership.
After Grassroots Leadership got hold of the handwritten letters coming out of Hutto in 2006, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of dozens of children threatened with separation from parents seeking asylum in the United States. The children, according to the suit, lived in bare cells, without even the smallest comforts, like a stuffed animal or a crayon. Guards performed middle-of-the-night “counts,” shining flashlights into kids’ eyes. A nine-year-old, describing her experience at the facility, said, “If you are not good, they will take you away from your mom.”
The ACLU ultimately settled its lawsuit on behalf of the Hutto children in August 2007. ICE released all 26 children, aged one to 17, who had been housed there at the time the suit was initiated. And ICE promised greater protections for future children at Hutto—time outdoors, educational programming, elimination of prison uniforms, and an end to threatening children with separation from their parents as discipline. Of course, the family separations in the summer of 2018 raise new questions about the salience of ICE’s 2007 promises.
Following the ACLU settlement, Grassroots Leadership continued to publish investigative reports and to coordinate protests of families’ treatment at Hutto. CCA responded with another rebranding, converting the Hutto Center from a “family” detention center to “women-only” in 2009.
But reports of sexual assault, like Laura Monterrosa’s, quickly replaced stories of family separation. Inspectors conducted sexual assault investigations in 2007, 2010, 2017, and 2018. A single guard has been arrested, in connection with the 2010 investigation, and has served less than two years for assaulting multiple women. In 2015, women at the facility staged a weeks-long hunger strike to protest abuses, including medical mistreatment. Some of these women, like Laura Monterrosa, were placed in “medical solitary confinement.” Austin City Council member Greg Casar attempted to visit Monterrosa but was turned away. As a private corporation, CCA not only is exempt from public institutional reporting requirements, but it also frequently claims further exemptions from taxpayers’ Freedom of Information Act requests and from oversight demands of local officials.
In 1988, when CCA first became a publicly traded company, co-founder Thomas Beasley said of privatized prisons: “We’re the best thing that ever happened to corrections since they stopped beating ’em.” Even back then, however, CCA was operating immigration detention centers alongside prisons. Places like Hutto apply similar standards in facilities intended to house people with two drastically different legal circumstances: prisoners convicted of a crime and immigration detainees who await their day in court. No one should be subject to the treatment documented in private prisons and detention centers, but especially not people who aren’t even prisoners. Exposés in states from Maryland to Ohio to Texas to Idaho have revealed mismanaged facilities, frequent escapes, unnecessary deaths, and vicious beatings in private prisons and detention centers alike. When one of these exposés hits the news, the corporation’s stock price suffers, but it recovers soon enough. The profits, like the abuses, have been steady.
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