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Feds Clear Private Prison Group of Sexual Abuse at Texas Family Detention Facility

Andrea Grimes

Investigators with the Department of Homeland Security say they turned up no evidence of what they call "inappropriate sexual relationships" between detention officers and women detained in a privately operated family immigration detention facility in Texas, according to a report released Friday.

Investigators with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) say they turned up no evidence of what they call “inappropriate sexual relationships” between detention officers and women detained in a privately operated family immigration detention facility in Texas, according to a report released Friday.

The report, however, found that detention officers were having sexual relations with each other on the premises, in a laundry facility that immigration lawyers say was open to children detained there with their mothers.

A detained woman at the Karnes County Residential Center reported to DHS, through her attorney, that she had heard “rumors that several Detention Officers and several female detainees were possibly engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships,” prompting an investigation in September and October 2014, just weeks after the facility was transitioned from male-only housing to family detention for mothers and children.

University of Texas immigration law experts who work with detained women and families at Karnes told Rewire that they were skeptical of the report’s findings that employees of Geo Group International, which operates the facility, did not commit sexual abuse or sexual violence—what the report calls “inappropriate activity” and “sexual activity”—against detained women.

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“It’s very reasonable to expect such issues to arise when you have a situation when you have 600 vulnerable women and children who are largely going through a very difficult immigration process after having fled very traumatic situations,” said Denise Gilman, the director of the UT Immigration Law Clinic in Austin.

Most of the women and children detained at Karnes are fleeing domestic, sexual, and cartel violence in Central and Latin America, and Geo Group receives a per diem, per person payment from the federal government for every person detained in the facility, many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States.

Gilman, whose clients number among the detained families at Karnes, said she has heard reports of sexual abuse at Karnes, and that she informed the Department of Homeland Security of the sexual abuse reported by her clients after the facility was re-purposed in August.

The report included allegations that one female detainee had been “impregnated by a detention officer,” and that detention officers “retaliated against” women who refused to be coerced into sexual relationships by threatening them with punitive “write-ups” that would count against them during their immigration proceedings.

Sexual contact between detaining officers and detained people is illegal and, by definition, non-consensual.

“It’s quite clear under all applicable standards that there is no such thing as permissible, consensual contact between detention center staff and detainees,” Gilman said. “Because of the hierarchies of power and control, it really is appropriate to say that that can never be consensual in any true meaning of the term.”

After interviewing 33 witnesses, DHS found evidence only that two detention officers had “engaged in inappropriate physical contact in the laundry room area while on duty,” though “Federal and State prosecutors concluded that no violation of Federal or State statute had occurred.”

Gilman noted that the investigation was “conducted in a facility where women have reported that if they break the rules or question the rules, their children will be separated from them,” according to information provided to her by her clients.

The fact that DHS found that Geo Group employees were having sex in common laundry areas was enough to give Gilman pause about the entire investigation and Geo Group’s ability to monitor the goings-on within detention center walls.

She said she was “concerned, even if it’s just employee to employee, what management is doing at the facility and what kind of environment is there for children and mothers.”

Gilman told Rewire that she has heard reports of sexual abuse and violence from “many women” who she and the UT Immigration Law Clinic has represented over the years, and that they will continue to track and document reports of abuse.

“We will absolutely continue to keep our tabs on a whole array of conditions and concerns about the facility,” said Gilman, who added that detained families also often lack basic necessities and have inadequate nutrition. Last winter, she had to write to the federal authorities to convince them to provide coats for women at Karnes during a November freeze.

“This is really just one piece” of the many issues faced by detained families in private detention facilities, Gilman said.

A number of human rights groups have documented and reported sexual abuse and assault at privately run detention centers over the last decade, though consequences and open admissions of wrongdoing are rare for the corporations that manage these kinds of facilities.

A guard at Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a female-only (non-family) detention facility, was arrested in 2010 on sexual charges against women detained at the center, but only after, Gilman said, immigration advocates refused to back down.

“The DHS, frankly, was not proactive in resolving that situation,” said Gilman. The facility is still open, and used to house unauthorized women who have immigrated to the United States.

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