Judge Condemns Conditions at Taylor Detention Center

U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks denounces conditions at T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center, ruling finds American Civil Liberties Union "highly likely" to prevail in lawsuits filed on behalf of minors housed at facility

The detainees of T. Don Hutto "Family Detention Center" have spoken, and U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks is apparently listening. On April 9, Sparks sharply condemned conditions at the facility in Taylor, in a ruling that found the American Civil Liberties Union is "highly likely" to prevail, at least in part, in lawsuits filed on behalf of minors housed there. Sparks affirmed claims that the detention of immigrant children was an "abuse of discretion"; however, Sparks did not grant the release of any of the three remaining plaintiffs or members of their families, as sought by the ACLU.

The ACLU and the UT School of Law's Immigration Law Clinic had filed suit on behalf of 10 immigrant children, ages 3-16, against Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and six U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The lawsuits allege that TDH is in violation of a 1997 settlement agreement in Flores v. Meese, which stipulates that children be released to family members when possible, and that those in custody be housed in the least restrictive setting available and are entitled to basic benefits and rights. "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," Sparks wrote.

Sparks found the defendants' case to be substantially problematic. No binding congressional rules govern the detainment of children to this day – ICE relies on a detention manual for incarcerating adult criminals in overseeing Hutto. Sparks agreed the "stopgap" Flores settlement was dated in the wake of 9/11, but supported its provision that a facility must hold a state license to house children in a nonsecure facility if they are not charged with a crime. But Hutto does not have a state license and does operate as a "secure facility," as noted in the ruling. Primarily, the defendants are counting an "exemption" granted to Hutto, one usually meant for programs of "limited duration" – Sunday school, for example. Sparks cited testimony that, in contrast, Hutto exacts "a high level of control" over detainees, and found plausible the plaintiffs' assertion that Hutto had misrepresented its status in obtaining the exemption.

What detainees experienced, before very recent reforms, was far removed from Sunday school, to be sure. Sparks flatly criticized conditions as "unsuitable." Testimony he cited painted a picture of what life was like in H Block before detainees complained: They had to sleep with the lights on, their every move tracked by lasers. They had to wolf down meals – if children dawdled, guards grabbed their food and pitched it in the trash. Bad food made some throw up, even lose weight. Detainees had to wear stained, "smelly" prison garb; they had to shower quickly – given only one minute at times. They also had to relieve themselves in an exposed toilet in their cells. High-schoolers "learned" math alongside elementary students; students received mostly handouts and little personal instruction. Visits from outsiders were forbidden; children's books had to come directly from publishers. Social workers conducted mental health visits in the open – also an affront to privacy. Psychiatrists "saw" patients over the telephone, and physically ill children often had to wait to see a licensed physician, available only eight hours per week to treat 400 detainees. Finally, guards kept children in line by invoking ICE as the bogeyman. Sparks quoted a declaration by one detainee: "Miss Parks said … I can have one chance but if the children don't behave first we will be separated … then if they still don't behave ICE will take them to another place." Such threats constituted "mental abuse," Sparks wrote.

While Sparks did not order the children's or their families' release, he characterized their detention in "substandard conditions" as an "urgent problem," ordering an expedited August trial date. Barbara Hines, of the UT immigration clinic, said she appreciated Sparks' decision, but "we are looking forward to convincing [Sparks] at trial that release … is the appropriate remedy. No amount of fresh paint can make Hutto the least restrictive environment available, as required by law." "Treating children like prisoners is contrary to legal standards, immoral, and un-American," said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas.

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T Don Hutto Family Detention Center, T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center, Sam Sparks, American Civil Liberties Union, University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Flores v. Meese, Barbara Hines, Corrections Corporations of America

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