(Photo courtesy: Grassroots Leadership)

A Central Texas detention center dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and gender-based violence has been maximizing its profits by underfeeding detained women and exploiting their labor, according to a new report by two Texas-based organizations. Now, women formerly detained at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, are speaking out and demanding the federal government shut down the facility.  

At any given time, approximately 500 women are detained at Hutto, a facility that has seen documented incidents of sexual assault and retaliation against asylum-seekers. But it doesn’t seem to matter what news emerges from the detention center—including new allegations of abuse and medical neglect appearing in a report released this week—Hutto’s doors remain open. Cruelty and Corruption: Contracting to Lock Up Immigrant Women for Profit at the Hutto Detention Center, released March 25, may shed light on why. 

The organizations behind the report, the Texas Law and Immigration Clinic and Grassroots Leadership, which organizes to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers, found that the private prison company CoreCivic and its contractors at Hutto maximize their profits by delivering poor service to detained women. They also report that CoreCivic’s extensive use of subcontractors at the facility “contributes to a culture of profit maximization” that “creates incentives to continue detention without policy justification.” 

For example, according to the report, in Hutto’s cafeteria, women are served low-quality food in small amounts, which maximizes profits by forcing them to purchase additional food at the commissary. The same parent company owns—and thus profits from—the two subcontractors that operate the cafeteria and the commissary, respectively. Meanwhile, CoreCivic, which operates Hutto as a whole, profits from the use of forced labor there and at other detention centers nationwide. In fact, CoreCivic is one of the nation’s largest private, for-profit corrections companies, and in 2019 reported $1.98 billion in revenue.

The organizations behind the report say that the outsized role played by private companies in immigration detention distorts policy decisions, tying them to profits for the private prison industry rather than immigration trends and objectives. In fact, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has consistently kept Hutto near maximum capacity—and the number of women detained at the facility does not change significantly even when there are fewer migrants subject to detention. Denise Gilman, director of the Texas Law and Immigration Clinic and one of the authors of the report, said it’s important the American public understand that there is no need to detain asylum-seekers at Hutto because the women detained at the facility have family who are able to receive them and ensure they appear at their court proceedings.  

This needless detainment compounds the trauma experienced by vulnerable asylum-seeking women, said activist and organizer Sulma Franco, who was detained at Hutto and can still recall what it felt like when she learned that her detainment at Hutto lined the pockets of private companies. 

“One of the things that I remember the most is how I lost my value as a human being and as a woman,” Franco said about the time she spent detained at the facility. The queer asylum-seeker came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2009 after receiving death threats because of her work advocating for LGBTQ rights. In the U.S., she fought hard for her freedom. She spent more than a year detained at various facilities and even had to enter sanctuary for a time as ICE continued to target her for deportation. She is now an organizer with Grassroots Leadership.

“Hutto is still open because big corporations want to profit off the pain of people, and so does [the Department of Homeland Security]. If there are no people detained, then there is no money coming in,” Franco said. 

Gilman agreed, and said that Hutto’s history shows the “real power of money” in immigrant detention. 

In January 2019, Williamson County voted to end its contract with ICE and CoreCivic, leading many in the community to believe the detention center would have to shutter. However, on July 31, 2020, ICE revealed it had signed a 10-year, $264.6 million contract directly with CoreCivic for the operation of Hutto, even though the immigration statute that authorizes contracting for detention space does not authorize direct agreements between the federal government and a private entity. 

In an emailed statement to Prism, CoreCivic’s manager of public affairs, Ryan Gustin, said that immigration is one of the nation’s “most personal and emotional issues,” and that it is also “incredibly complex.” 

“It’s unfortunate that critics attack the benefits we provide without themselves offering any solutions to the serious challenges our country faces on immigration,” Gustin wrote. “It’s also unfortunate that a wholly unsubstantiated, anecdotal ‘report’ from a group whose sole purpose is to end our industry is taken at face value, while scores of official independent audits that demonstrate the quality of our services are ignored.”

Gilman, who is deeply familiar with the issues facing women detained inside of Hutto, said the new contract between ICE and CoreCivic is “astounding.” 

“What it does is put in place a system where there is no incentive for CoreCivic or its subcontractors to change or improve conditions because they have a multi-million dollar contract locked in,” Gilman said. “Money has won out over the interest of the local community in shutting Hutto down and the rights of the women who have been detained there in conditions that are abusive.” 

But Gilman also wants people to understand that Hutto is a case study in how powerful corporations make money off of vulnerable asylum seeking women. 

“[The companies] believe they will get away with it because they have been, and because of the overwhelming challenges women face when they try to speak out,” Gilman said. 

Franco has experienced those challenges firsthand. After the longtime activist was released from Hutto, she was still able to visit with women detained in the facility. She even helped some get released. But once ICE caught wind of her organizing efforts, Franco said she was banned from entering the facility. The organizer said it’s frustrating that even though she’s been out of detention for years, Hutto still limits her access and communication to women in need of help. 

Still, Franco has found a way to use her experience to help other women who were detained in Texas. As part of her work with Grassroots Leadership, Franco is the lead organizer with Mujeres Luchadoras, a group of about 20 formerly detained women. Like Franco, most of these women spent time at Hutto and they are now fighting to shut down the facility. On March 24, Mujeres Luchadoras performed an action outside of the detention center demanding its closure. 

Testimonies from members of Mujeres Luchadoras that are woven into the Cruelty and Corruption report illustrate the urgency of the call to shut Hutto down. 

“Maria,” a 39-year-old from Guatemala, described how she was physically and sexually assaulted by a group of men when she crossed the border. By the time she was apprehended by Border Patrol, she said she felt like she was “going to die.” Maria was bleeding from her sexual assault and the federal agency failed to provide her with the hygiene products she requested. After three days in a processing facility she was transferred to Hutto, where she asked a guard for medical attention. Maria was told to fill out a form if she wanted to see a doctor, but she fainted shortly after because of blood loss. 

In another account, a 57-year-old woman suffering from diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure said that when she was transferred to Hutto, immigration officials threw away the medications she brought with her from Mexico. She ended up losing consciousness. Instead of transferring her to a hospital for medical care, detention center guards sent her to solitary confinement. 

Another Mexican woman said Border Patrol separated her from her 6-year-old daughter because she didn’t have documentation proving she was her child. 

“I cried and yelled like never before in my life,” the 24-year-old said. “At Hutto, I fell into a depression because I did not know anything about my daughter. The guards at Hutto laughed at me when they saw me crying. I thought I would die of stress.”

ICE did not respond to the specific allegations made in the Cruelty and Corruption report. However, a spokesperson for the agency told Prism that ICE is committed to ensuring that everyone in custody receives timely access to medical services and treatment. 

“Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “All ICE detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

The agency also said it spends approximately $300 million annually on healthcare services provided to detained people. 

Franco said that without the women of groups like Mujeres Luchadoras, the public would likely never know what truly happens inside of facilities like Hutto. However, the organizer also finds it upsetting that so many of the women currently detained in Hutto are cut off from the outside world and largely hindered from telling their stories. 

“It’s really important for people like myself to have access to these places and to these women, not only to help them emotionally, but also to empower them and give them knowledge about how they can fight their cases,” Franco said. “How many more women will have to live in fear? How many more families will have to be separated? How many years do we still have to fight for our freedom? How long before Hutto is shut down?” 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.