Analysis Human Rights

For Women on Hunger Strike at Hutto Detention Center, It’s About Freedom

Tina Vasquez

"If you read the letters from the women detained within Hutto, you’ll see this isn’t just about health care or the quality of food in detention; it’s about human rights violations," a source with access to the women within Hutto told Rewire

As the women of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, move into the tenth day of a hunger strike aimed at demanding immediate release, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is reportedly ramping up its efforts to quell the strike.

In one case, a Garífuna woman from Honduras named Insis was placed in “medical solitary confinement” for two daysa common tactic used by ICE, according to sources.

Despite the use of its infirmary for solitary confinement, Hutto detainees say the detention center does not properly address medical needs, as outlined in some of their letters released to Grassroots Leadership, an organization that forms part of a larger umbrella group known as Texans United for Families (TUFF). Insis, who suffers from sickle-cell anemia, wrote that when she says she’s sick, she’s called a liar. She also said that detainees there are not treated like humans, but “like dogs.”

Access to medical care is just one of the many issues being raised by the hunger strikers at Hutto.

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Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that various intimidation tactics are being used by ICE in an attempt to end the hunger strike at Hutto. Actions such as hunger strikes are considered bad publicity for both ICE and for-profit private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the company that operates the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. Parker said hunger strikers are now being threatened with deportation, questioned by ICE, written up by guards for not leaving their areas to go to the cafeteria for meals, and being asked to eat and drink in front of ICE officials.

As Rewire reported earlier today, six women participating in the strike are being rounded up for transfer; two of the original 27 hunger strikers were already moved earlier this week to a men’s detention center in Pearsall, Texas.

Since then, ICE has said in a statement to Rewire that it “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” It reiterated that the facility “does not have solitary confinement areas” and that “no one … was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity because ICE can revoke detention center visitation for any reason, one source with access to the women within Hutto said what is happening is a human rights violation. Women like those in Hutto fleeing violence in their countries of origin are often brutalized on their journey. A recent report by Fusion found that 80 percent of the girls and women crossing Mexico from Central America en route to the United States are raped along the way. Many are then put in detention upon arriving in the United States.

“If you read the letters from the women detained within Hutto, you’ll see this isn’t just about health care or the quality of food in detention; it’s about human rights violations,” the source said. “The women have already been tortured in their countries and they arrive with signs of deep trauma, showing symptoms of PTSD and depression, only to be re-traumatized by being placed in what is essentially a for-profit prison where they are threatened with deportation.”

Sometimes, those who are deported are murdered upon re-entering their country of origin. Last month, the Guardian reported on a forthcoming academic study identifying as many as 83 U.S. deportees who have been murdered since January 2014 on their return to the area known as the “Northern Triangle of Central America”El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

In the past two weeks, detainees in four immigrant detention centers have launched hunger strikes: Hutto, the El Paso ICE Detention Center, the Adelanto Detention Facility, and Louisiana’s LaSalle Detention Center, where the 14 South Asian asylum seekers holding the strike recently released a message of solidarity for the women striking in Hutto.

The hunger strike at Hutto is decidedly different because of the detained population. The women-only facility holds asylum seekers, women who’ve fled violence in their countries of origin. The majority of the women detained at Hutto are from Central America. According to the report Women on the Run, released last week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women in Central America and Mexico are fleeing their countries in rising numbers to “escape a surge in deadly, unchecked gang violence.” The report found that criminal armed groups terrorize populations to gain control of areas and specifically target women using extreme forms of gender-based violence.

Asylum seekers such as the ones detained at Hutto must prove to ICE “credible fear of persecution or torture,” meaning they must prove it is unsafe to return to their country of origin, whether because of specific threats or because the environment is unsafe based on the identities they hold. If they prove they have a credible reason to fear for their lives, they are released from detention and allowed to remain in the United States. A major problem, said the source, is that women are not provided with proper legal counsel, forcing them to represent themselves in court and during hearings on their asylum applications, even though many of the women do not know English and are unable to read.

Detainees in these centers can remain in limbo for months and even years, unsure if they will be allowed to stay in the United States or if they will be deported. Activists say this leads to high rates of anxiety and depression and exacerbates the deep trauma many migrant women have already experienced. Hutto, however, does not provide help for mental and psychological trauma, the source close to the detainees told Rewire. The counselor at the detention center doesn’t know Spanish, forcing women to use Language Line Services (LLS), which requires a staff member to dial into the Language Line to connect with interpreters who assist with communication between the counselor and detainee.

“There is a lot of stigma regarding mental health issues and at Hutto, rumors circulate that if you are deemed mentally ill or to have mental health issues, your detainment will only last longer,” the source said. “We do not have proof of that being true, but there is a lot of mistrustand rightfully so. We’re expecting women to open up about their trauma to those who are imprisoning them. There are many layers to the human rights abuses.”

CCA is the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation and it has come under attack many times for human rights violations, including at Hutto, which was once used to detain immigrant families, including children. The Obama administration removed families from the center in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, including—according to the Texas Observer“accounts of children suffering psychological trauma.”

A federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

Many problems arise when private corporations are allowed to act as prisons, especially as it relates to the abuse of women. The ACLU found nearly 200 allegations of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities across the nation since 2007, a number its reports indicated did not fully represent the problem. The sexual abuse of detainees is not an isolated problem “limited to one rogue facility or merely the result of a handful of bad apple government contractors who staff some of the nation’s immigration detention centers,” according to the ACLU.

In fact, the largest number of cases of sexual abuse against female detainees has been found in Texas, where Hutto is located, though similar reports of sexual abuse have come from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, for-profit prisons have become a powerful lobby. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, CCA and GEO, spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989and it’s proving to be lucrative. The Washington Post reported that CCA and GEO rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue.

The source who maintains contact with the women detained in Hutto said CCA makes $150 a day for each detainee, “which is why their hearings are constantly postponed and many are detained for months at a time, only to be deported.”

The source visited the women at Hutto on November 1. One woman the source had been visiting for six months shared that shortly before deciding to join the hunger strike, she was informed she would be deported this week. She has been in detention for a year.

“The woman fears for her life,” the source said. “She understands she faces potential death upon deportation.”

The women participating have not announced an end date for their hunger strike. The source close to the women in Hutto said that improving access to medical care and the quality of food within detention centers would be “nice,” but the strike isn’t about that.

“It’s about freedom,” the source said. “The women in Hutto are striking against the entire detention center system that profits off of them. They need to be with their families and other supportive systems. They cannot heal from their trauma while imprisoned.”

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