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Inside Our Supposedly "Humane" Immigrant Detention Centers

The interiors of detention centers might as well be black sites, cast off the political map except for the rare instances of abuse so egregious that they blip onto our radar.

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When she could focus on our conversation, she told me she’d been in the U.S. for 15 years. She’d come following a man. They’d had children, but he soon left her and she was left without a job trying to make do. Her father and brothers are in the U.S. and she has no family in South Africa.

After half a dozen more interviews at Glades, I was told it’s time to leave. As we walked down the hallway toward the entrance, we passed a thick glass window on a door that looked out to a gravel yard. A torrent of rain smashed against it. The ICE officer, a short rounding black man with a thick Cajun accent, said that the detainees wouldn’t be going outside for their hour of rec time that day.

“It’ll make them restless to be in all day, but this rains not gonna stop for a while.”

Obama’s ‘Humane’ Reforms

In late 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to reform the detention system. The reforms included stated efforts to decrease the number of immigrants and asylum seekers held in penal jails or jail-like facilities, and to detain people closer to their homes by building new facilities near urban centers. The announcement also suggested that more people could be released or placed on supervision without being locked up, which is a more fiscally prudent option than mass detention. Yet, according to an October 2011 report by Human Rights First, about half of ICE detainees are still held in actual correctional facilities and most of the rest are held in jail-like facilities. Rather than expand alternatives to detention programs, ICE under Obama has moved to build more facilities, which it says will be “humane.”

ICE has made only a few forays into humane detention, but the agency boasts about them as models of reform. The T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it’s called, is one of them. Hutto is behind the main street in Taylor, Texas, an hour north of Austin. It’s a small town with a mile-long downtown that’s filled with closed shops. Near the highway exit, a couple of shiny auto sales lots filled with trucks and a farm equipment retailer look like they’re doing well.

Passing through the metal detector at the front desk of Hutto, I sat down and waited for 30 seconds until a petite woman with blond highlights named Melissa came to collect me. Melissa spoke with a south Texas accent and worked for ICE at the facility, which is owned by the private Corrections Corporation of America. We were joined by the chief of security at Hutto, an employee of the CCA who wore jeans and a belt with shiny rhinestones on it.

According to Melissa and the chief of security, Hutto is not a jail. Like its name suggests, it’s a residential facility. I ask if the women can leave if they want to. “No. But the thing is, we help them get ready for life after they’re out of here. There’s even a volunteer work program. They get $1.50 a day for a four hour shift.”

It’s the first in a series of comments Melissa makes to paint Hutto as a rehabilitative facility. What its occupants are recovering from she does not say.

Until two years ago, Hutto was used to detain whole immigrant families, both parents and children. But advocates made a big enough fuss about locking up kids and that practice ended. Hutto didn’t close, though. It became a women’s detention center, and now there’s a large dirt patch in the yard where there used to be a jungle gym. Corrections Corporation of America, the for-profit company that owns Hutto and at least 13 other centers, donated the toys to the town of Taylor.

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