TDH 'Kidnapped Dream'

More than 400 protestors converge upon T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor

The view down Welch Street was a study in contrasts Saturday, when more than 400 protesters converged upon the euphemistically named T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor – known to the world as Williamson County and the U.S.'s very own "kiddie prison," where even babies wear prison garb. The purpose of the all-day vigil was to commemorate World Refugee Day and press for closure of the former jail, which "houses" 400 detainees – 200 of them children – plucked from their lives and transported there by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The forbidding concrete castle, formerly for convicts, appeared not to have changed its stripes, despite claims the government has made it more family-friendly. Maybe the razor wire is down, but that's about it. White vans by the score, some with long, thin windows, were disconcerting, and huge expanses of buzz-cut, fenced lawn, showed no signs of life – until employees waved onlookers away late in the day. A "no trespassing" sign, in English and Spanish, made it clear who was boss. No children were observed at play outside at any point.

The vigil scene was different – a lively picture of conviviality and conviction. Protesters enjoyed good food, music, and conversation, and booths dispensed protest regalia, as speakers decried absolutely the practice of incarcerating children and their mothers, who are charged with nothing criminal. One of the high-profile co-sponsors of the event was Amnesty International. Sarnata M.B. Reynolds, director of the AI Refugee Program, based in Washington, D.C., said, "There are clearly alternatives to detention. … I can't think of any reason children should be in prison." Asked whether the justification given by Rep. John Carter and others for jailing children – to protect them from human trafficking, a problem documented by AI researchers – is valid, Reynolds said, "This concern is misplaced. The children at T. Don Hutto are with parents and not vulnerable to human trafficking." Reynolds also challenged the term "illegal," as applied to many of the immigrants housed at TDH, because once a person files for asylum, he or she is "documented."

Reynolds' husband, Andres (who did not want his last name used), applauded the opportunity to protest travesties like T. Don Hutto. "To people who want to hate America, I say: What other country is putting so many people and resources into protecting human rights?" On the other hand, in instances like T. Don Hutto, "They kidnapped the dream. … This is not the country I grew up loving." Zainab Shawky wore an orange-ribbon pin she designed in the color of prison jumpsuits, to "represent all the innocent people sitting in jail."

The people who held court, however, were a mother, her son, and her daughter, who spent months in the facility. The little girl said one guard had been "nice" – a "Miss Anderson" – but when asked whether she'd ever been afraid there, she answered, "." Her mother characterized the staff at T. Don Hutto as "verbally abusive" – they "screamed" quite a bit, her interpreter told the Chronicle. They ordered even her children to "do this now" and "get away from there" and pounded tables to gain compliance. Her child saved a cookie, only to have it grabbed by a guard, who threw it in the garbage," causing the child to cry. "The warden has taken the place of the parents," Reynolds noted.

On Tuesday, the Williamson Co. Commissioners Court, which administers the finances of the facility and reaps hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to do so, met in executive session to discuss the controversial TDH contract but took no action. According to County Judge Dan Gattis, the court will talk about it "next week."

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