Hutto Jail a Texas Private Prison is in Trouble

AUSTIN, TX - In a ruling issued late Monday, a Texas federal court found
that the American Civil Liberties Union is “highly likely to prevail” at trial on
its claims that the detention of immigrant children at the T. Don Hutto facility
in Taylor, Texas is an abuse of discretion by federal officials and violates
applicable legal standards.

“We are very pleased that the court has found that our clients are highly
likely to prevail at trial on the merits of their claims. Federal officials cannot
exempt themselves from the law in the name of immigration enforcement,”
said Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
“As we’ve said from the start, there are viable alternatives to imprisoning
these children that would not compromise law enforcement.”

While U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks did not agree to release the
children at this point in the proceedings, he recognized that their “continued
detention in substandard conditions is an urgent problem,” and ordered
that a trial take place in August.

The ACLU, along with the ACLU of Texas, the University of Texas School of
Law Immigration Clinic and the international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb,
Greene & MacRae LLP, filed lawsuits last month on behalf of ten immigrant
children, ages three to 16, who were detained with their parents who were
awaiting immigration determinations. The lawsuits were filed against Michael
Chertoff, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and six
officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). During the
course of the litigation, several of the plaintiffs have been released.

The lawsuits charge that by operating the Hutto facility, ICE is violating its
duty to comply with provisions set forth in a 1997 settlement agreement in
the case of Flores v. Meese. The Flores settlement establishes that
children should generally be released promptly to family members when
possible and that those who do remain in ICE’s custody be placed in the
least restrictive setting available and, regardless of where they are housed,
that children be guaranteed basic educational, health, and social benefits
and rights.

Judge Sparks determined that the Flores settlement applies to the detained
children in this case and that, given the evidence presented, the ACLU is
likely to prove at trial that their detention at Hutto violates the Flores
settlement’s requirements that minors be placed in a licensed, non-secure
facility with adequate conditions. “The Court finds it inexplicable that
Defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort, and taxpayer dollars
to establish the Hutto family detention program, knowing all the while that
Flores is still in effect,” Judge Sparks said in his ruling. In its order, the court
found that because Hutto is not licensed, it “has not been subject to any
state regulation at all regarding its treatment of the children in its care.” In
addition, citing testimony of an expert psychologist, the judge’s order stated
that Hutto is run like a secure facility and that “it seems clear that ‘the
facility and the officers exercise a high level of control over virtually every
aspect of the families’ functioning.’”

The court also found substantial problems with many types of care provided
to children at Hutto including medical care, nutrition, and privacy. According
to the order, “The living conditions at Hutto seem questionable in general.”
Judge Sparks found evidence that children were threatened with separation
from their parents as a disciplinary tool “most troubling” and likely in
violation of the Flores requirement that children at Hutto not be subjected to
humiliation, mental abuse, or punitive interference with daily living.

“We are gratified that after reviewing evidence of the conditions at Hutto,
Judge Sparks finds it likely that the government has been violating its
obligations under Flores,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of the ACLU of
Texas.  “Treating children like prisoners is not only contrary to legal
standards, but it is also simply immoral and un-American.”

Barbara Hines, a Clinical Law Professor with the University of Texas School
of Law Immigration Clinic, added: “Although the judge did not believe he
could release these families at this point in the legal process, we are
looking forward to convincing him at trial that release, under proper
conditions, is the appropriate remedy.  Even if conditions at Hutto improve,
no amount of fresh paint on the walls can make Hutto the least restrictive
environment available for these children, as required by law.”