The first family detention center in the United States was opened in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2001 when a nursing home was converted into a detention facility.


In May 2006, the State of Texas opened the second family detention center after it converted a medium-security prison located in Taylor, Texas into the Don T. Hutto Residential Center.


These family detention centers reflected a dramatic change in the nation’s immigration policy in the wake of the 9/11 twin towers terrorist attacks in New York City. Prior to 2001, families caught entering the U.S. unlawfully was most often released as a group because there were limited facilities with the necessary bed space to house them. The parents and children of families who were detained before 9/11 had to be housed separately.


The 9/11 attacks introduced much more restrictive immigration controls. A tougher, more expedited removal program immediately put into place after the attacks created fundamental problems for the automatic release of families who unlawfully entered the country.


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks, started detaining more family groups. The parents were placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding facilities while the children were placed in facilities operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement Programs (ORR).


The DHS based this dramatic policy shift on the premise that alien smugglers had been “renting” children prior to 9/11 and pairing them with adults unlawfully entering the country. DHS said the smugglers wanted to pass these pairings off as “families” in order to take advantage of the pre-9/11 automatic family release policy. DHS saw this as a possible avenue for potential terrorists to enter the country or, more likely, as a good ruse to detain economic migrants who entered the country illegally.


This new DHS policy, which had the result of separating legitimate family groups, did not sit well with Congress. In 2005, the House Appropriations Committee while dealing with a DHS appropriations bill rejected the agency’s new policy, saying:


“Children who are apprehended by DHS while in the company of their parents are not in fact ‘unaccompanied’ and if their welfare is not at issue, they should not be placed in ORR custody. The committee expects DHS to release families or use alternatives to detention such as the Intensive Supervised Appearance Program whenever possible. When detention of family units is necessary, the Committee directs DHS to use appropriate detention space to house them together.”


Profit Driven Prisons Take Over Child Care


The problematic private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic), and the State of Texas saw an incestuous opportunity to turn a profit off the housing dilemma faced by DHS in housing family immigrants who entered the country unlawfully. Texas would lease its medium security penal facility to CCA who would then convert it into a family detention center: one that would ultimately become infested with sexual violence, widespread official corruption, and deplorable living conditions. That’s because the private prison group came to see immigrant families and their children in the same away they saw adult inmates housed in their private prison facilities across the country: a means for profit through violent abuse.


In 2007, a U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas (Austin Division) would hear evidence about these conditions at the Hutto family detention center:


  • Unreasonably cold rooms,
  • Inadequate medical care,
  • Substandard food,
  • Psychologically abusive guards,
  • The facility run like a prison,
  • 24/7 camera surveillance of personal living and communal areas,
  • No contact visits allowed,
  • Children experiencing nightmares, bed wetting, and weight loss,
  • Guards threatening to separate children from parents as a means to discipline the children,
  • Five hours of education time and one hour of recreation,
  • Children given 20 minutes to eat their meals with no additional nutrition provided during the day,
  • Children ordered to throw away food not consumed during 20-minute time limit,
  • All the children in a given pod allowed just 30 minutes for showering,
  • Showers routinely not working or running only cold water,
  • One licensed physician on staff for 8 hours per week to handle 400 residents, half of whom were children,
  • Two non-board certified mental health providers available,
  • One licensed psychiatrist available by phone,
  • Frequent shortage of medical supplies,
  • Official handbook said children could not have toys in rooms or pictures hung on walls,
  • Residents could receive books from families members only if they were sent through the mail by the publisher as is done in a prison setting, and
  • Experts found that children released from the facility suffered from nightmares, bed wetting, and aggressive/regressive behavior.


These conditions only worsened over the next decade leading protestors, as recent as February 2018, to gather outside the facility to voice their concerns about human rights abuses inside the facility.


Sexual Abuse in Detention Facilities


Between 2014 and 2016, the Office of Inspector General for DHS received 1,016 reports of sexual abuse filed by people in detention in these kinds of facilities. Immigrant rights attorneys particularly charge that women at the Hutto facility are routinely subjected to sexual abuse, denied medical care and psychologically mistreated or manipulated by CoreCivic employees.


It is not surprising that the Trump administration would choose Texas as its killing fields to enforce its new “zero tolerance” program that separates children from their parents who enter this country unlawfully. Texas has four private prison companies—CoreCivic, the GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation and Correct Care Solutions—on its soil ready and available to imprison the roughly 70 children the Trump administration is seizing each day from their parents. These companies have highly skilled staff capable to inflicting the kind of abuse, suffering and inhumane treatment on the children and babies in order to achieve the level of deterrence the Trump jack-booted administration wants.


Texas will now be known as the “baby jail” capital of the world.