BY ERICA HELLERSTEIN – – – –
The opening of Maribel Zelaya’s letter was bleak.
“I cannot bear this punishment any longer,” she began. “I’m dying of desperation, of this injustice, of this cruelty. We are immigrants, not criminals. To treat us like this, it’s as if they must not have hearts, as if we weren’t human. They treat us like dogs.”
Zelaya was fed up. For more than six months, the 29-year-old asylum seeker had been locked inside the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility in rural Texas. The building, formerly a medium security prison, is a bleak concrete complex surrounded by a wall ofchain link fence. Zelaya found the conditions inside the center disturbing; her health began to deteriorate and she fell into a deep depression. At the end of October, she released a searingletter in Spanish describing life inside Hutto, the nation’s only all-women’s detention center.
Like so many of the women at Hutto, Zelaya — whose attorney asked that her full name not be used to protect her safety — was fleeing abuse and a city held hostage by gang violence. But she soon became disillusioned with the grim reality of detention, and decided to stop eating in protest. “I am glad to participate in this hunger strike,” she wrote. “It’s an insult, I came here to find shelter but what I got instead is punishment.”
Zelaya was joined by at least 26 women who also refused to eat until they were released from detention, according to Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit working closely with the women at Hutto. Their actions made headlines after the organization published handwritten letters from 18 of the women, describing their treatment in detention and reasons for striking. “I do not have the help of no one and I am asking as a favor if you can help me I would appreciate it so much because they do not want to lower my bail,” wrote a woman from Mexico protesting the facility’s “inadequate” medical care.
The issues many of the women identified aren’t unique to Hutto, however. They are the product of a sprawling immigration detention system increasingly reliant on partnerships with private prison companies. Those corporations have found a lucrative market in the growing detention of immigrants. Today, nine of the 10 largest detention centers in the country are run by private prison companies. Hutto, for example, is run by the nation’s largest for-profit prison corporation,Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When Zelaya arrived at Hutto, she found herself caught in this complex partnership. Her decision to go public arose from a deep sense of disappointment with her treatment in detention, especially after enduring trauma and violence in Honduras. The asylum seeker fled harrowing abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, who was rumored to be a sicario, or hitman, for a dangerous gang. “Everyday I discovered a [bad] secret about him; he was a monster disguised as a person,” she recalled in a detailed declaration to her attorney. “He would snort cocaine, and also he would invite his colleagues and friends to drink; they would go to the club and get women and when he was drugged, he would kill them.” Sometimes, he would lock Zelaya up and refuse to feed her.
Zelaya eventually left her husband and moved in with another man, but her situation didn’t improve. After she refused to carry drugs into the city jail for his gang, her home was broken into and she was brutally raped. A few days later, gang members stormed into her house with M16s and AK47s, warning her to leave or face death. Zelaya escaped Honduras, but was arrested by Customs and Border Protection and sent to Hutto after arriving in the U.S. She spent more than six months detained at the center before writing the letter and making her grievances publicly known.
ICE, for its part, quickly denied all reports of the strike. But the events raise questions about the agency’s oversight mechanisms and its response to protest, especially in privately run detention facilities. Although ICE outsources to CCA, the for-profit corporation is not subject to federal public records law, making it difficult to know what happens to detainees who enter centers like Hutto through ICE’s tangled bureaucracy. But Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) requests to ICE give us a peek behind the curtain of this secretive world.
As Immigrant Detention Spikes, Private Corporations Move In
The women at Hutto weren’t the only detainees protesting the conditions of lockup. The reported strike emerged as similar actions popped up at immigrant detention centers throughout the country. In October, more than 60 detainees reportedly launched hunger strikes at detention centers in El Paso, Texas, and LaSalle, Louisiana. A month later, hundreds of men began a hunger strike at a detention center in Adelanto, California, and more than 100 detainees launched a series of hunger strikes to protest conditions at detention centers in Alabama, Colorado, Texas, and more.
Considering the numbers, resistance to the conditions of detention should hardly come as a surprise. The immigration detention system has exploded in recent years, nearly doubling its capacity over the past decade. The system’s expansion is partly due to a Congressional mandateknown as the detention “bed quota,” which requires that the Department of Homeland Security make more than 30,000 beds available every night for immigrant detention. Thanks to the bed mandate, the total number of people in detention each year has risen dramatically, from 230,000 people in Fiscal Year 2005 to 440,600 in 2013.
The growth of the industry has also helped create a lucrative market for private prison companies, which have welcomed the immigration crackdown as an opportunity for profit. Now, 62 percent of all ICE immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit prison corporations, compared to 49 percent in 2009. The nation’s two largest private prison companies, CCA and GEO Group, have benefited from the surge in particular. Together, they run eight of the country’s 10 largest detention centers, and operate 72 percent of the private immigrant detention industry. Unsurprisingly, both companies reported surging profits in their quarterly earnings this summer and have more than doubled their revenues since 2005. In 2014, CCA earned $195,022,000 in net revenue, compared to $133,373,000 in 2007.
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS
Of course, this isn’t coincidental. The industry’s major players have a vested interest in the expansion of the detention system and have pushed hard to protect their bottom lines. Over the past decade, the nation’s three largest private prison companies have spent upwards of 45 million dollars on campaign contributions and lobbyists to push legislation at the state and federal level. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA alone spent $10,560,000 lobbying as it advocated on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform.
This cozy relationship may help illuminate legislation like Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers law,” which allows police officers to check the immigration status of undocumented immigrants andwas projected to increase the number of people in detention centers. Of the bill’s 36 co-sponsors, 30 received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists and companies, including CCA and GEO.
The industry’s growth has accompanied troubling revelations about the treatment of detainees, including human rights and due process violations. Well before Zelaya drafted her letter, Hutto was the subject of a 2007 landmark ACLU settlement addressing the “prison-like conditions” for children and families who were held there in detention. The center, which opened in 2006, was originally created to hold immigrant families. The lawsuit alleged that children were required to wear prison jumpsuits, held in small cells, and limited to an hour of outdoor playtime per day. The case sparked outrage and a whirlwind of negative press. After the settlement, conditions for detainees at Hutto reportedly improved, and the scorned family detention center was convertedinto an all-women’s detention center two years later.
Since then, ICE and CCA have made an effort to reform Hutto’s image and are particularly sensitive to negative reports about the facility, advocates say. According to Denise Gilman, the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, Hutto has better conditions than other detention centers, and is now seen as a “model facility” by ICE.
“It’s the standard they lift up for why detention is not a bad place,” Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, said. “They tout their programs inside, and it’s the facility for asylum-seeking women. If there are reports that at that type of facility that there’s a hunger strike, that women are resisting eating, that would do a lot of damage to their image.”
Inside The Strike
It’s not easy to find out what happens inside the walls of ICE’s numerous detention centers. Critics complain of a persistent culture of secrecy within the agency, and details about the circumstances of hunger strikes can be sparse even on the occasion that ICE will acknowledge one. Rarely will the agency grant more than a yes or no confirmation.
But through a FOIA request to ICE, ThinkProgress obtained a document that provides some clarity: CCA’s emergency food strike plan. The disciplinary nature of the company’s policy (embedded below) stood out to Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project who specializes in immigration detention.
“The thrust of the policy is to squelch the protest rather to address any medical or health concerns,” Takei told ThinkProgress after reviewing its content. “It’s very different from ICE’s hunger strike policy, because ICE’s hunger strike policy is primarily about medical procedures and medical concerns. This policy is about security and control.“
For example, CCA’s plan states that supervisors are instructed to “secure the facility” if they determine that the strike threatens the center’s security.
“That’s a very long way of saying that the facility goes on lock-down,” Takei explained. “That means that everybody’s movements within the facility are going to be restricted. Since Hutto is set up with people in two-person cells, that probably means that they would be required to stay in their cells for a substantial portion of the day.”
Mary Small, policy director at the advocacy organization Detention Watch Network, said that the threat detection provision was “an absurd part of the policy. In what way does a food strike threaten the security of the facility?”