National Spotlight Shines on Detention Center

Things are getting dicey at Immigration and Customs Enforcement-affiliated facility in Taylor

Williamson County commissioners may be living to regret that the county's former overflow jail, the newly infamous T. Don Hutto Residential Center, did not invoke immediate self-scrutiny once it was converted to a federal detention center in December 2005. Things are getting dicey at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement-affiliated facility, which is fielding national scorn and shock over alleged mistreatment of detainees, especially with respect to the practice ofÊincarcerating children. About 400 people from 30 countries are reportedly awaiting the outcome of deportation proceedings at TDH, some of whom are seeking asylum.

Last Friday, ICE held an open house at TDH, so to speak, which was attended by major news outlets and human-rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Based on conversations with detainees, the ACLU may file suit citing "grave concerns" and a myriad of incivilities. After the tour, the Los Angeles Times reported that TDH personnel confiscated a child's teddy bear and that she slept in an 8-foot-by-15-foot cell. Though TDH had set out its finest plastic plants and served pizza the day of the event, it is unlikely any such niceties could quell fears about living conditions or mitigate knowledge of such heartbreaking actions toward a child. TDH defenders told the press that keeping families together was the humane course and that living quarters were dormlike, and the menu even fattening. And, on the county level, Commissioner Lisa Birkman maintained that detention classrooms look like the real thing in the real world. (TDH recently announced, after complaints, that the center's one-hour school days will be expanded.)

What a difference a year has made, as this big bang of bad press was foreshadowed by nary a whimper on Dec. 20, the day the Commissioners Court ratified the contract with Corrections Corporation of America, which would serve as the "provider" with WilCo the sponsor and ICE the regulator. Before the vote, Sheriff James Wilson and Assistant County Auditor Julie Kiley soft-peddled the deal as relatively easy money, which would require not much more than a signature and net the county about $200,000 per year. According to the contract, however, WilCo is liable for much more than that: detainee education, medical care, and transportation to anywhere in the world, as well as guard service. Nonetheless, WilCo commissioners celebrated the Taylor jobs saved, and tax-base preserved, by the deal. At that point, just more than a year ago, the local press announced the arrangement without questioning it, and the county did little more than cash the checks – until detainees voiced concerns, that is. Only last month did commissioners themselves tour TDH – again, under pressure. Essentially, the facility received hardly a glance from county government until detainees spoke up.

Eventually, the courts may decide whether T. Don Hutto has been guilty of civil rights violations. Unless vindicated, WilCo will remain – at least in the court of public opinion – the county that jails innocent children for a cut off the top.

*Oops! The following correction ran in our February 23, 2007 issue: Also, in last week's "National Spotlight Shines on Detention Center," the referenced 2005 Williamson County Commissioners Court meeting, at which the contract with Corrections Corporation of America to manage the T. Don Hutto Residential Center was ratified, took place Dec. 20, not Dec. 27. The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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T. Don Hutto Residential Center, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, American Civil Liberties Union, Lisa Birkman, James Wilson, Julie Kiley

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