Legislation that would favorably change the rules for private prison companies charged with housing immigrant women and children was introduced in Texas last year, but it wasn’t written by politicians – the bill was authored by one of the very firms it stood to benefit.
According to The Intercept, the measure would have allowed family detention centers to be classified as childcare facilities, which would extend the period of time Immigration and Customs Enforcement could detain women and children.
At issue are two family detention centers in Texas that were contracted under the Obama administration in 2014 to accommodate an influx of women and children seeking asylum.
CoreCivic runs the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, and the Geo Group manages the Karnes County Residential Center.
However, because of multiple judicial rulings dating back to 1997, no undocumented child can be held for over 20 days in anything but a licensed “non-secure” childcare facility.
The two facilities, however, come nowhere close to meeting the definition of “non-secure”:
Grassroots groups have given them the grim nickname “baby jails,” and a survivor of a WWII-era Japanese internment camp said the facilities “triggered distressing associations of my own experience as a child.” Reports of inadequate medical care, sexual abuse, improper solitary confinement, and permanently stunted child development proliferate. Most of all, the presence of locks on the doors contradicts the idea of a non-secure facility. “They’re not allowed to leave. That’s jail,” said Mary Small of the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working on immigration issues.
While both facilities had been granted childcare licenses by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services, a Texas judge blocked the designation, which led Geo Group to put together legislation that would essentially invalidate the judge’s ruling.
The bill would lower state childcare standards for family detention centers, excluding the facilities from regulations such as ones that prohibit housing children and unrelated adults in the same room.
Republican State Rep. John Raney admitted to the Associated Press that Geo Group officials wrote the legislation. “I’ve known the lady who’s their lobbyist for a long time. … That’s where the legislation came from,” said Raney. “We don’t make things up. People bring things to us and ask us to help.” There’s companion legislation in the state House and Senate.
Though the bill passed the Texas Senate, it stalled in the House and eventually died there.
But the impetus for and driving force behind such legislation was clear: Private prison companies were determined to grow the pot of cash that family detentions centers have granted them.
Without the bill, the facilities would likely have to shut down, said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Bryan Hughes. The Karnes facility earns about $55 million per year for the Geo Group. But in part because of the standing judicial order, the population is only about 100 in an 830-bed facility.
Geo Group has a lot riding on expanding immigration detention. It runs the federal case management system for family detention and has committed significant resources to adult detention facilities, which don’t house women or children.
The Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies provide an already questionable industry the motivation to push legislation that serves its bottom line without due consideration for the vulnerable population it is intended to serve – and it doesn’t appear this will change any time soon.
In the time since the Texas bill failed to progress, President Trump has doubled down on policies hostile toward immigrants, including separating children from their parents as the Justice Department moves to prosecute all persons who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.