The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is demanding an investigation into the handling of sexual abuse allegations at the T. Don Hutto immigration detention center northeast of Austin
In a letter to federal officials Monday, MALDEF said that two of its clients reported abuse to the center’s officials in 2017 but that the accused employees were allowed to continue working at the facility.
The civil rights group wants the cases reopened and wants the government to release any audit of the facility under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is meant to detect, prevent and respond to sexual abuse in federal detention centers.
The issue has become more pressing because Hutto is now being used to house several Central American immigrant women who were separated from their children at the border under the Trump administration’s now abandoned zero-tolerance policy, said Celina Moreno, a MALDEF attorney.
“Obviously what has happened to our clients is horrific,” Moreno said. “It really becomes more unconscionable given that we know women separated from their children are there as a result of the zero-tolerance policy.”
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said the agency wouldn’t comment on “pending litigation,” although the letter isn’t a lawsuit. The letter was sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, ICE officials and others.
The center, in Taylor, is owned and operated by CoreCivic Inc., formerly the Corrections Corporation of America.
According to MALDEF, four detainees saw the CoreCivic resident supervisor, “on multiple occasions, masturbate in the dorm area while staring at detainees in a lewd manner.” In addition, MALDEF says, a Salvadoran woman reported that a Hutto employee engaged in a sex act with her and then threatened her into keeping silent.
And a Honduran woman said she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances from a female Hutto employee, according to MALDEF.
MALDEF said the abuse of its clients continues a “long history of sexual abuse by staff at the center.” The organization is asking the Department of Homeland Security to terminate its contract with Hutto if the agency can’t protect women from abuse.
“With the ongoing efforts and success of the ‘me too’ movement, we must ensure that those in immigration detention are protected, as well,” said Tom Saenz, MALDEF’s general counsel.
The six-page letter from MALDEF came as Williamson County commissioners were to consider terminating their intergovernmental contract with ICE on Tuesday morning, according to the county agenda there. Hutto is in the Williamson County city of Taylor, about 30 miles northeast of Austin.
On Tuesday, the commissioners court voted 4-1 to end its contract for managing the center by Jan. 31. The county could end the agreement without incurring a financial penalty for any reason as long as it gives 90 days’ written notice.
Through the intergovernmental contract with ICE, Williamson County was the detention center’s administrator, said county Commissioner Terry Cook. But it had contracted with CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private prison and detention center operators, to run the facility.
But Connie Odom, the county’s public affairs manager, said that even if the contract is ended, the facility could continue operating without the county.
“That simply takes the county out of that agreement, but it doesn’t necessarily permanently close that facility,” she said. “ICE could pursue other avenues as to how to contract with that facility.”
MALDEF’s letter alleges that two asylum seekers have suffered sexual abuse by guards at Hutto. It alleges that Homeland Security officials have failed to “prevent or adequately address” the abuse.
According to the letter, the Honduran asylum seeker, identified only as S.G.S., suffered “unwelcome comments” about engaging in a sexual relationship from the female guard, and the guard brushed up against the detainee’s breasts. The Honduran woman was transferred to a detention facility in Laredo and has since been deported, complicating the process of dealing with her complaint, MALDEF said.
The MALDEF letter also details the case of Laura Monterrosa-Flores, a Salvadoran who says she was threatened with violence if she spoke about being assaulted. She has since been released from Hutto, MALDEF said.
The letter alleges that several video cameras at Hutto do not work and that CoreCivic doesn’t maintain enough cameras to properly monitor the recreation area, where the letter says some some of the abuse took place.
“MALDEF calls for an immediate investigation into its clients’ allegations of sexual abuse, including but not limited to an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” the letter reads.
The letter also says that “DHS failed to take action that could have prevented the sexual abuse of MALDEF’s clients and continues to leave other detainees vulnerable at the Hutto detention center by refusing to provide proper oversight and supervision of detention center staff.”
It’s not the first time allegations of misconduct have been leveled against the Hutto center. A guard was accused several years ago of sexually assaulting eight women as they were being transported to and from the facility. In 2006, a woman told authorities she was sexually assaulted by a Hutto employee while her child was in the same room.
Asked if MALDEF was preparing to sue, Moreno said there was no private right of legal action under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Moreno said that law needs to be strengthened.
Odom said the decision on the county’s contract was placed on the agenda after the public raised concerns about it.
“There have been a number of people that have come to the Commissioners Court meeting to express their opinion that the Commissioners Court should no longer continue that contract,” she said.
In an op-ed, Commissioner Cook wrote that the history of Hutto “has consisted of ongoing protests, vigils and lawsuits addressing claims of sexual and other abuses, along with numerous requests to end the contract, which incidentally protects the county against any lawsuits. Unfortunately, ending the contract wouldn’t grant us authority to release the women. [T. Don Hutto] is owned by a private company and managed by ICE, a federal agency.”
“Like them, detest them, or just feel indifferent towards such detention centers, they are probably not going anywhere under the current federal administration,” Cook wrote.
Hutto began housing noncriminal immigrant families in 2006 and that led to a successful federal suit by the ACLU to shut that practice down at Hutto. Hutto now houses only adult women immigrants. Hutto has room for about 500 women.
Dianne Solis and James Barragan
Dallas Morning News